22 Sep 2021 World leisure: news, training & property
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Spa Business
2018 issue 1

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Leisure Management - How can spas protect guests and therapists from sexual assault?

Ask an Expert

How can spas protect guests and therapists from sexual assault?

Allegations late last year of sexual assaults at US franchisor Massage Envy locations put the industry in the media spotlight. We ask the experts what can be done

The nature of the job means therapists are alone with guests shutterstock

Late last year, reports of sexual assaults at Massage Envy locations were made public as part of an investigative report by online news outlet BuzzFeed. The story was widely publicised by US media outlets, and includes allegations from more than 180 women who have filed lawsuits, police reports and state board complaints saying they were sexually assaulted at Massage Envy franchised spas.

Massage Envy responded by launching a six-step plan called ‘A Commitment to Safety’, which includes a partnership with an anti-sexual violence organisation and clearer steps for responding to sexual assault claims. The company is mandating updated background screening for all therapists on an annual basis and launching a third-party ‘Universal Background Check Screening’. A list of third-party resources is being created to help franchisees in their investigations of sexual assault claims, and Massage Envy has formed a Safety Advisory Council.

In the wake of this news many spa owners and managers may be wondering what they can do to ensure the safety of their customers – and what precautions they can take to ensure they don’t wind up in a similar position. But these reports have also served to remind our industry that it’s not just our guests who can be victims of assault, but also our therapists.

So what is the best way to protect both guests and therapists? Are there simple solutions that can give spa owners peace of mind? How can spa managers create a culture of respect and tolerance, and what can they do to educate both their staff and guests on the subject – without frightening people away? And what will the ramifications of this unwelcome publicity be for our industry? We ask the experts...

Lynne McNees President International Spa Association (ISPA)


Lynne McNees

Ican’t help but reflect on what the recent news of alleged sexual abuse of guests by therapists could mean for the industry. Spas should be places where customers experience relaxation and invest in their health. We have to work together as a spa community to ensure consumers and therapists consistently feel safe and respected within all spas. Building and maintaining confidence are top priorities.

The ISPA leadership believes that proactive training, active promotion of the ISPA Code of Conduct and a zero-tolerance policy should be adopted by spas of all types. Misconduct should be addressed on the first day of an employee’s training and everyone should be given the tools to manage difficult situations immediately. Therapists should also be proactive with their clients. At the beginning of sessions, therapists should remind the client to let them know if anything is making them uncomfortable, encouraging the guest speak up and feel comfortable doing so.

I’ve had countless conversations with members about their policies relating to this topic and one recent conversation stood out as an example worthy of noting. A respected spa leader shared that she has a very strict zero-tolerance policy at her spa. If a complaint is made about a therapist, he or she is removed from the room immediately and is not allowed to see any clients until the matter is completely resolved. If it is determined the therapist was in the wrong, they are banned from the spa – one strike and you’re out. Proper authorities are notified as warranted. And the same goes for guests. While the recent news has been all about therapists taking advantage of clients, our members sometimes get complaints from therapists about clients making inappropriate advances. Customers who cross the line are also banned from her spa – zero tolerance.

While this is obviously a challenge for our industry, I hope it makes us take a look in the mirror and closely evaluate our policies and procedures. The spa industry is an incredibly strong community, and there is no doubt in my mind that we will emerge even stronger and better than before.

"Misconduct should be addressed on the first day of an employee’s training"

Trent Munday Vice president Steiner Spa Consulting


Trent Munday

The recent sex scandal involving Massage Envy franchises is a wake-up call for us all.

We, the spa industry, have been putting our collective heads in the sand when it comes to sexual harassment. So what can we learn from these events?

The first step is always education. Not just training. Education. Everyone in your spa needs to be educated about the issue, how to recognise it, how to respond to it and how to cope with the after-effects. It seems obvious, and it is, but so many spas have chosen to not speak about it and hope nothing happens.

Your clients, customers and guests also need to be educated too. They need to know what is acceptable and what is not. The only way this can really be done at the spa level is by spelling out the policy for all to see. Maybe it’s a rules and regulations poster on the wall, or maybe it’s a line or two on the client waiver form they sign during the consultation. Ultimately, you need to find a level of comfort with getting the message through to your clients.

It’s also vital to establish a set of very clear procedures and policies around the issue for both therapists and clients. The standard operating procedures (SOPs) need to cover as many scenarios as possible; otherwise, you leave the door open for someone to say their situation was a bit different from the SOP so they didn’t know what they should do.

Victims often don’t know where to turn – especially if the spa manager or owner dismisses their claims. Filing a police report seems like the obvious answer, but many clients are too embarrassed or worry they won’t be taken seriously.

Everyone needs to be clear on what steps they can take when sexual harassment or assault occurs. For big companies, an anonymous customer complaint hotline might be the answer. If you are a small owner/operator, that hotline number may have to be your cell phone. Make sure everyone knows you take this very seriously and you’re there to help.

"We’ve been putting our heads in the sand when it comes to sexual harassment"

Julie Pankey Founder JM Pankey Partners


Julie Pankey

T he ramifications for our industry of the Massage Envy sexual abuse claims can potentially set our new customer conversions back; the non-spa goer is looking to feel comfortable and reassured as they enter the uncharted spa territory, and these claims certainly don’t help.

The majority of spas have good policies and procedures in place to make sure that sexual abuse does not happen. This type of experience is not the norm – not even close. The spas I work with have done everything that they can to prevent any misconduct.

The most important policy for spas to have in place is that if either party feels uncomfortable in any way, at any time, or for any reason, they are encouraged and fully supported to terminate the service. Both staff and clients need to know that their wellbeing is the number one priority and that the management of a spa is 100 per cent supportive of this.

There are several ways to make sure this is clearly known. Training for staff is critical and a “training” of sorts for clients is also critical. On the spa’s website it is important to address possible concerns clients may have such as draping, male/female therapist requests, customisation, comfort and professionalism. We write this into our treatment menus as an effective way to reassure potential clients that their safety and comfort is important to us.

Spa managers must also have the difficult conversations with their teams. At staff meetings I encourage open dialogue, role-playing and the review of policies. Work to button-up all protocols so everyone feels comfortable. The fastest and easiest way to address these issues with the team is to be open, start conversations and hold ongoing training.

My philosophy has always been to over-communicate rather than under-communicate. So much falls through the cracks when there is a breakdown in communication; it’s our job as leaders in the spa industry to ensure that everyone – clients and staff alike – knows the rules.

"It’s our job as leaders in the spa industry to ensure that everyone knows the rules"

Amy McDonald Owner and CEO Under a Tree Health and Wellness Consulting


Amy McDonald

Ensuring that both guests and therapists are safe from sexual harassment and abuse starts with two things: building and maintaining a culture of zero tolerance, and strong hiring policies. It’s critical that spas have strong human resources and ownership support so that both of these start at the top.

Management and staff need to know they’re supported, and that a foundation for zero tolerance of any harassment – whether it’s towards staff or a guest – is fiercely in place.

Spa managers and owners need to invest time in their hiring practices, and hire experienced therapists. Always do background checks, call references, and ask the right questions. Interview therapists both in person and on the table, and have them do more than one service back-to-back, with both male and female clients.

Include education about your policies on sexual abuse and harassment in all of your new hire orientations, and host ongoing training and meetings about it. Make it part of the culture, and make sure all staff understand the ramifications and their responsibility to tell someone if they suspect there may be an issue with another staff member.

It’s also worth investing in an ongoing secret shopper programme – and making sure that all staff are aware of it. Staff need to know that their company takes this seriously.

Having an ongoing discussion that reinforces a culture of respect and non-violence is important so that everyone feels safe to come forward and speak about a situation.

Spas should be open with guests about what they do to train, bring awareness and minimise situations. The main message should be: if someone is uncomfortable – whether on the table or offering a service – they need to stop the treatment and leave the room. They need to know that there is support and help close by at the front desk and with management.

The Massage Envy sexual abuse story was all over the news last year, but like so much news, the rest of the world has moved on. But this is our world, and I encourage us all to take this opportunity to learn and implement more policies, cultivate stronger cultures and be more vigilant to ensure the integrity and longevity of our industry and our role in the global community.

"Always do background checks, call references, and ask the right questions"

Originally published in Spa Business 2018 issue 1

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