Sarah Klebo, the human resources director of Fitness Formula Clubs, shares what tools and resources clubs can use to address sexual harassment.
Of all the untamed creatures in the animal kingdom, humans are by far the wildest. Throughout my years in fitness as a collegiate athlete, yoga enthusiast, certified personal trainer, CrossFitter, and now human resources (HR) director, I’ve heard, seen, smiled at, gritted my teeth and experienced thousands of moments that reinforce it: human beings can be supremely uncivilized.
Many years ago, I was sitting at a large conference room table in a not-so-large conference room with no windows. The lights were off and the glow from a slideshow on the projector screen was the only light in the room. After several painstaking hours of editing in a previous meeting, the rest of the staff had left, so my boss and I were alone going through each slide with a fine-toothed comb.
After a long day, I was feeling edgy and impatient. With just a few changes left to make, I asked my boss, “Can you provide me those details so I can update this slide?” He didn’t answer right away. Then after a long pause there was a very quiet but, very clear, “Beg. Me.”
Immediately, my heart pounded and my hands went clammy. I felt disgusted and unsafe and thought, “How can I get out of here fast?” But I kept my composure, even though inside I was panicking, and I narrowed my eyes, raised my eyebrows and said with a certain tone, “Please?” as in, “Please give me the details so we can finish this and pretend like you weren’t just creepy.”
To be honest, I don’t know what happened after that, but I quickly scurried out of the dark conference room and escaped to safety. I never told anyone at that company what happened. I was so young, and I’d never had this happen to me before. I didn’t know what I would say or who I would even tell.
Even though I couldn’t quite articulate why, in my gut I knew what “Beg me” meant. I was upset, frustrated and completely grossed out as soon as he said it. And while I didn’t know it then, I sure know it now: that type of comment constitutes as sexual harassment because it tests the limits of our relationship and his power. How far will this person go before I stop them?
Now, years later, as an HR leader, it’s my duty to make sure that our staff at our clubs never feel the way I felt in that conference room. It’s my responsibility to make sure they know what tools and resources they have to fight sexual harassment if it does happen to them. Regardless of if it’s from a fellow employee, a member, a guest, a supervisor or even a third party person.
If I could rewind the hands of time, what advice would I give to the younger me? Exactly what I teach to our employees now:
- Speak up right away to your harasser, no matter who it is, with some force behind your voice. Say something like:
– “That’s not okay.”
– “I don’t like that.”
– “Don’t say/do that to me again.”
– “I’m not interested.”
– “That’s unacceptable behavior.”
- Tell your supervisor, the boss, or in my case, the boss’ boss.
- Tell HR.
- If you are a bystander and witness an incident, the same steps apply.
In the fitness industry, it’s an unfortunate reality that sexual harassment can be more prevalent because we want our employees to have good rapport and relationships with each other, and because it’s literally our business to talk about bodies – my body, your body, that person’s body, etc. – this can sometimes be misconstrued as sexual in nature.
Those fun and collegial relationships can sometimes blur the lines, so providing specific guidance about how to maintain connection and professionalism with fellow coworkers while communicating about bodies is a huge focus of mine.
I know everyone will not feel empowered to speak up in the moment. I know I didn’t back then. But that’s what HR is here for: to advocate on the employee’s behalf and help have those hard conversations when needed.