This is a story about one of my dumb decisions. Between a perm I had when I was 15 because I wanted an Afro (I was culturally appropriating before it was even cool, Rachel Dolezal) to slathering baby oil all over my 16 year old lily white British skin before sitting on a sun drenched beach all day, and voting Liberal in my very first Canadian election, it’s tough work deciding on which of my decisions was the dumbest idea of all time. The following is at least in the top five.
I used to be the Group Fitness Director for a fairly large chain of clubs out in western Canada. You had to be a woman to be a member. In fact, at the time I started my tenure there, there were only female fitness instructors leading all the classes. So, in addition to the fact that it was a female only gym, there were also no male fitness instructors, no male personal trainers, no male club managers, no male salespersons and no male receptionists.
There were two testosterone exceptions, though. One was the co-owner of the club (who was married to the female co-owner of the club) and the other was our building engineer, who I absolutely adored because we saw eye to eye all all things to do with music, sound, speakers, acoustics, baffles, headset microphones, and decibel levels. He was a joy to work with because we both had such high standards, and we both wanted to waterboard every instructor who screeched too loudly into her headset and subsequently blew the speakers. He was the Pluto to my Mickey Mouse.
When I took over as the GFD, the objective was to expand and improve the existing Group Fitness schedule and to attract the most talented and knowledgeable fitness instructors available, as well as recruiting promising new talent and enrolling them in the mentoring program I had set up. With the support of the senior management, this was achieved fairly quickly. After about a year of overhauling the existing program we had earned a well deserved reputation of offering cutting edge classes taught by extremely erudite instructors.
Then….BOOM…we received a formal written complaint from a man. Specifically a male group exercise instructor. He had walked into one of our clubs and asked about teaching for us and was immediately rejected by the receptionist. He did not walk out after that rejection. He insisted on talking to the club manager, who also rejected him. As a testament to his absolute refusal to be rejected (admirable, really, in hindsight) he asked for the address of the head office so he could write a letter to the owner sharing his absolute outrage at being brushed off.
He got that address, and he did write that letter, outlining his case and accusing us of discriminating against him based on gender and how sure he was that we were breaking laws by denying him an opportunity to audition for us. The male club owner called me after receiving the letter and we had a chat about it.
First of all, I was pretty pissed that he had been rejected at the club level. That was not for them to even decide. That was my territory. I absolutely should have been contacted OR he should have been instructed to leave his name and number so I could contact him personally and reject him. Yep…you read that right. Reject him.
That is what my initial thoughts were. Why? We had a rather large Muslim membership at one particular location and I knew that having a male instructor would create an absolute Islamic shit storm of huge proportions. I understood the reasoning for that as well. I actually thought a shit storm of negative feedback would be justified. After all, they had joined a club that was a WOMEN ONLY club. It was reasonable for every member, Muslim or not, to assume that this meant it would be male free.
After a few minutes of conversation, though, I could see clearly that the owner was not on my page. Heck, he wasn’t even on the same chapter as me. Being the completely open minded person I am (plus he was paying me a super duper great salary to listen to him) we discussed the ramifications of not interviewing him versus calling him in. He actually had some great arguments for auditioning him. First of all, it WAS gender discrimination. As well, by having a male instructor, assuming he was qualified and capable, it could increase class sizes in our locations. Why? Because, dear reader, the following is a fact in the fitness world, and one I have been witness to for almost a quarter of a century. On average, your worst male instructor will attract more participants to a class than your best female instructor. Doesn’t matter if the club is for women only or is co-ed. It’s a fact Jack/Jackette.
After going back and forth for about half an hour on the pros and cons, it was agreed that I would call him and invite him to an interview and audition.
The interview went well with, let’s call him R. I liked him, even if he was a tiny bit smug with the fact that he was able to get me to talk to him. On paper he was extremely qualified with two different certifications, but he had little to no practical experience. The audition was a bit rocky. He had some things to work on like 32 count phrasing and some transitions, but overall he was a good candidate for the mentoring program, which is what I told him in a follow up phone call a couple of days later. This was when I should have realized that this guy was going to be a massive problem.
He was incredulous that I wanted him to enter our mentoring program rather than immediately start teaching classes. I had to point out to R all the mistakes he was currently making as an instructor and how I could not allow him to start teaching on his own until he had completed twelve weeks of mentoring. I told him he would start out with me as his mentor for three weeks, but I would then hand him off to a well seasoned and fantastically popular instructor for the remainder of his training. He wasn’t happy, but he agreed to the terms.
Honestly? Part of me was actually happy he had such a high opinion of his skills. He was completely delusional, but one of the things I had to cope with as the GFD was the low self esteem of some of the instructors that would come on board. It was very draining at times to constantly shore up their self worth, and before you think that that is pretty shabby of me to have felt that way, I’d like to insert that I had over one hundred instructors teaching for me. Not all of them required constant affirmations, but there were plenty who did. I prefer people with a healthy sense of self. This would prove to come back and bite me hard in my assular area and I deserved it.
The first three weeks went really well. I handed off R to one of our top instructors. I got a call after their very first session from both of them…separately. No two stories could have been any different. It was like listening to Jamie Foxx prattle on about how Obama is our Lord and Savior and then listening to Hilary Clinton remark that Obama can never give a straight answer. Who and what to believe? Just kidding, I immediately believed M. Why? Because I had history with her. I knew her and her character. I told R that he had a choice. To either make things work with M or be dropped from the mentoring program. Meanwhile, I told M that she was to consider working with R as a growth opportunity. Learning to deal with difficult people is a must when you are a fitness professional. I heard a heavy sigh come from M. I now realize that sighing sound was reality about to come crashing down around me.
R finished his mentoring program and was ready, in his opinion, to take over a class immediately. M had her reservations. Not about his skills as an instructor. Technically he was very, very good. M’s problem with R was his personality. How do I put this? M thought he was insufferably arrogant. While M was giving me her final grade on R, she reminded me about my vision for the GF program. That the class and participants always came first and that the planned exercise class the instructor was teaching was NEVER their workout, but the members workout. The instructor was not to be the center of attention, the participants were. To that end, each instructor was to lead a class, BUT be willing to walk around, make adjustments, correct form and give individual encouragement where necessary. M felt that R was way too busy admiring HIS form and making sure the attention was on him, rather than the class as a whole.
Instead of really listening to M’s concerns and sitting R down for a chat, I decided to just give R a class at our largest location. After all, how bad could his personality be and the ladies would probably lap it up anyway, which meant happy members who would be recommending our club to their friends and family. I really did not want my instructors being arrogant, but what would be the harm if my ONE male instructor was a bit hubristic? THIS! This is where my double standards raised their ugly little mugs. I deserved every crappy thing that I had to deal with after my decision.
Almost immediately R’s classes were packed. The ladies LOVED him. I knew this because I would be stopped and told how freaking amazing R was and how his classes were spectacular. I also had plenty of written feedback as well in the form of notes left at the front desk extolling R’s virtues and explaining how his classes were like a religious experience. Now, I know I have not told you whether R was extremely good looking and had the body of a Greek God. I’ll tell you now. No and no. He wasn’t a troll, by any means, but he wasn’t Ryan Reynolds (or Gosling). His body was fit and trim, and to be admired, but nothing that would make you squeal and faint. Nope. His appeal was the factor I wrote about earlier in this post. Women like to go to male instructors. You can argue with me if you’d like, but I’ve lived through this time and time again. I would refute your arguments with real life examples.
Now, not all of the female members were thrilled. As I initially thought, there was push back from many of our Muslim members. We pushed back at them. We told them they had a choice NOT to go to his class. This was Canada and our gym was not a religious building. These were our country’s laws and as the majority of our members loved the idea of male instructors, this was where we were heading. Unlike the countries where some of these women had emigrated from, we have free choice here in Canada and they were encouraged to exercise that free choice. We lost a few members, but gained so many more. This is called standing firm in the face of bullying tactics. I have always been pretty good at that.
Well, you’d think that this story had a happy ending. Sadly, no, that is not the case. After about two weeks of nothing but positive member feedback, I went to one of R’s classes to do an assessment. I was horrified. Not at his class content. That was flawless. It was his delivery, lack of feedback to the class, his disregard for members coming in to class late, his self absorption and his complete unwillingness to focus on and to correct anyone’s bad form. I almost had a complete breakdown when the class ended and he was surrounded by class members who were fawning all over him, telling him how great HE was. I did not hear one woman tell him (or me) that his CLASS was great.
We talked after his class and I told him exactly what I thought, and I gave him a written feedback form so that he could clearly see my concerns. He just didn’t get it. Instead of focusing on the fact that I actually loved his content, just not his delivery, he got very defensive (which I was actually okay with and expected anyway…it’s how most people, myself included, would likely react after teaching what they thought was a flawless class) and delivered to me what he thought would be a coup de grace: BUT THE MEMBERS LOVED ME! I told him that was irrelevant. None of those members were running this program. None of those members understand exercise science. None of those members understand modifications or exercise safety.
I outlined again what I expected from him and that he was to radically alter the way he presented his class. Not the actual content, just the way he presented it. He agreed. Too quickly, actually, which should have sent my fitness senses tingling. Nope, I walked out of there confident that he had listened to me. HAH!
A few days later I left for a vacation in Germany, Belgium and France. Those were the days that you could travel without six different mobile devices and not be considered abnormal. I was completely unreachable. I was not concerned. I had three very competent club coordinators who were overseeing the program while I was away. It was a glorious two weeks. As soon as I got home the fecal balls started hitting me.
Three things had happened while I was gone. One: R had gotten into an email fight with one of my best instructors, and then started cc’ing other instructors on this disagreement. The fight had started out low key, as evidenced by the lengthy email chain that I was able to eventually catch up on, but had quickly escalated to all out war over the fact that R had not finished his class on time and had forced the next class (taught by my super duper excellent instructor) to start way later than it should have. I want to point out that R was the one that had escalated the fight. All the other instructor had done was to shoot off a quick, and friendly email asking R to watch his time in the future. It went from 0 to 60 mph in about four emails and from 60 to 120 mph in another ten emails. Two: There were at least thirty written complaints from members about the assessment I had given R just before I left for vacation. This perplexed me because this assessment was PRIVATE and not to be shared with members. Three: R had left a message for me that he’d like to speak to me about a raise.
I drank a liter of a very good red wine, snacked on some delicious dark chocolate and plotted my offensive. I also called that male owner. He was aware of the first two points, but was not aware of the last. I want to write here that NEVER, ever had I ever heard this person swear. I felt he was just not capable of it. He was (and probably still is) a consummate professional. His salty words to me, after telling him that it appeared R wanted a raise, while not as bad as what I was thinking, immediately told me that he was pissed beyond the point of return. R was going to be sent packing and I got to be the one to gather up his fitness ass and turn him loose. So that is exactly what I did.
It wasn’t pretty, but I learned valuable lessons about my high standards and how to avoid having double standards. If I wanted all my instructors to meet a certain bar, then I could never make excuses, or rationalize, for someone that clearly wasn’t going to meet that bar. I could never again allow someone, just based on gender, (but insert any socially explosive word here) to color how I treat someone. It wasn’t okay for me to allow so much time to go by before acting. It wasn’t okay to allow this particular person to get away with something I’d never allow another person to get away with. Every person, when doing the exact same job, should be expected to be able to carry out what is required of them.
R’s face when I told him we were letting him go was incredulous. He genuinely did not see where he had been the one to overstep his bounds. I explained the best I could, and then wiped him off the bottom of my fitness shoes and moved forward. I got a tremendous amount of flack from the members who idolized R. I dealt with them one by one and told each of them the truth of what happened. It was NOT okay that he had shared confidential and personal feedback based on his job performance. It was not okay that he had bullied and browbeat another instructor based on her decision to make him aware that he had encroached upon her class time. It was not okay that he refused to teach according to our club philosophy.
Yes, R was wildly popular. Yes, he was, and would have probably continued to attract new members. But at what cost? He had disrupted a team of people that were working together pretty seamlessly and had pitted people against each other. Letting him go was one of the best decisions we made as a managing team, even if hiring him was one of my dumbest decisions.
Lest you think we initiated a complete moratorium on male instructors, we went on to hire other men who were nothing like R. Each person hired, regardless of gender, had to meet our standards. I never again made a hiring decision based on immediate gain and veiled threats of being sued. I also learned to listen to my gut and the opinions of my trusted team members. That kind of thinking kept my dumb ideas down to a minimum.
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Your blogs are so refreshing to read. You always tell it like it is, and I really appreciate that.
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What a nice thing to write to me. Thank you for reading!
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I liked your article, and your title made me laugh…lol. ❤
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The gym I attend is mixed, both members and trainers, and I chose my PT on merit rather than gender. He taught me a great deal, was unafraid of telling me how badly I was doing something – but quick to praise improvements. Sadly he has moved on and I am about to try a lady PT. I want someone giving me value in my ‘private’ hour who is concentrated on my needs rather than gym politics. It sounds as though your gym has found a new status quo, and happy staff can only benefit members. Maybe R will consider his views and grow into a good trainer some day.
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