Safety is something that every fitness club’s general manager and owner stress about on a daily basis. Publicity is another concern that is top of mind.
Today’s news cycle all too often involves a story line with allegations of inappropriate behavior by an adult in a position of authority who uses their power and coercion to prey on children. While this topic brings an understandable sense of discomfort, it’s one that needs to be discussed and made a priority for any club. Children are among our most vulnerable population and we owe them the highest standard of care.
Children are an important part of the lifeblood of many clubs in today’s market. If children are active in a club, there’s a better chance mom and dad will be, too, and that positively affects retention. Since children are future potential members, many clubs are continually expanding their offerings for youth, such as child watch, day camps, sports, swimming accessibility and other fitness and cultural programming. All of these offerings come with a need for increased awareness, training and protocols to protect these children and your staff.
Nothing is more unsettling and can potentially provide intense negative publicity than that of an allegation of child abuse. Presumptions are made. Reputations are ruined or scarred and much pain can be caused. In order to protect our children, mitigate against these kind of allegations and provide the highest degree of protection for all, I recommend the following protocols to be reviewed by your club:
- Background checks: You do have to be aware of the laws and statutes around what is permitted in your state relative to your operations, etc., but background checks are an excellent deterrent if nothing else; and the broader the better. Research has shown that many offenders often move, even from state to state, so a broad national search is where these offenses and inconsistencies may pop up.
- Understanding employment history: In that same vein, many states don’t allow asking questions of past offenses on applications, and most employers won’t give you too much on a reference except maybe to verify employment dates; but it can be vital to get a clear depiction of a prospective employee’s work history. If they have worked at numerous childcare centers or other relevant settings, and in different locales, it could be a red flag that something may be wrong.
- Awareness training: While pre-employment screening is important, it is also true that unless a sex offender has been caught there will be no record of wrongdoing. That makes awareness a key aspect of mitigating allegations and concerns in this space. A training platform that enables and informs staff to recognize some of the signs of abuse, particularly in children, can help curb potential allegations and raise awareness. Also, institute regular training programs for transient and seasonal employment and have all employees sign off as to their attendance and understanding.
- Proper protocols and procedures: Strict, enforceable protocols and procedures are also critical to abuse prevention. These include:
- Acceptable contact – examples might include no child sitting on laps, limited hugs (with a preference for “side hugs”), toileting procedures, etc.
- Proper ratios – the real key here is no one on one! This should be the golden rule. If you do not put your staff in a position where they are alone with a child, then there will always be witnesses to corroborate one’s behavior!
- Reporting – strict guidelines should be established for how and when allegations of suspected abuse are reported – and mandated for your staff.
- Crisis Communication Plans: Along with when to report allegations and to whom, a good crisis communication plan should include detailed protocols as to who is able to communicate with whom and when (i.e. who can discuss allegations to other members/parents, or media, social workers and investigators, etc.). Controlling communications can often allow the investigation to proceed without additional rumors that can be very damaging to all parties involved in these sensitive situations.
All of these policies and procedures must come with strict adherence expected by all and with an understanding that consequences will follow if they are not. As we’ve demonstrably seen in many of these horrifying national cases, if someone would have said something, or would have followed a reporting procedure, much harm may have been prevented.
These tips and strategies can help you work to keep all safe at your facility, maintain your good reputation and keep members coming back year after year.
Brian Rawlings is Practice Leader for Venture Programs and has spent his career working in fitness and insurance. At Venture, Rawlings is leading the new FITLIFE® program, which insures fitness, wellness and spa facilities. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.