Spa & Wellness MexiCaribe tackles the sensitive issue of sexual harassment in spas. Learn from our Expert Panel and their experiences.
SattevaSpa & Wellness Concepts
I admire you for bringing up this subject and addressing it outright for the industry. As we are seeing a social movement towards gender equality, anti-harassment and accountability, I believe our industry should be leading the charge with a long look in the mirror. I have unfortunately had several experiences of inappropriate behavior and harassment in the spa environment, both by female and male therapists, and by guests and therapists alike. It is more common than thought.
While it is more common to hear the story about an inappropriate therapist, there is also the reverse situation. We had a male therapist who had a stellar reputation, professional high standards of service, a beloved colleague and an excellent therapist with a following of loyal guests. He had a female guest visit about 6 times always requesting him, no complaints. One visit she accused him of inappropriate behavior. It escalated into a lawsuit against the company, the company decided to fire the therapist, no questions asked. I ran into the same guest several years later with the same scenario at another spa. Therapists were targeted and careers sacrificed for the sake of the press and the cost. There needs to be a very open and transparent discussion between spa management and upper management about these situations and a plan for handling them that will protect both the therapists and guests. There should be training programs in place to help the staff handle the different scenarios and to feel confident in their work.
Policies and standards can be implemented that help to diminish the impact of these events, although they will never disappear. I have found that a detailed policy outlining verbiage is necessary for different scenarios, specific responses and tolerance levels (before ending a service and leaving the room), and the procedure for interacting with management, hotel or resort security, and other legal implications.
There must be training and re-training so the staff never feels that a “grey area” exists. Secret shoppers can offer a discrete and in-depth insight into how the staff responds. Encouraging listening sessions is also helpful, where staff can share stories and support each other. They should be encouraged to speak up.
There are also therapists who have a reputation for inappropriate behavior and they are seldom called out on it, they Spa-hop and self-promote while growing in the industry. This should be a moment of reckoning.
Diana F. Mestre
Mestre & Mestre
Throughout the years I’ve experienced several situations on both sides.
Harassment towards a female therapist
Sexual harassment towards a therapist can occur when a male guest asks for a ‘french’ or ‘happy ending’ massage, he may take off the towel or sheets and wish to be naked through the massage or make a direct sexual innuendo towards the therapist, sometimes offering them a sum of money for the ‘happy ending’.
Since 1995 we place a small sign in treatment rooms that reads, ‘All services at this spa are of a therapeutic nature, any sexual or lewd behavior will terminate the service without reimbursement. The management.’
If the guest did not comply then the therapist was trained to say ¨Mr. XXX if you do not stop this conduct I will leave the room and I will ask my supervisor to speak with you. The type service you are looking for is not offered at this spa.” Normally this warning was enough and worked well. On a few occasions a supervisor had to speak with a guest regarding his conduct with the therapist.
The spa manager may need to take further action. When I was a spa director I had a supreme court justice guest that would do improper things in front of the therapist during the massage. I had to personally ask him to come to my office and I explained to him the situation was improper and had no place in a world-class spa. He apologized and never returned.
It is important to train therapists on what to do when the situation arises, helping them to conduct themselves in a polite and professional manner. If no one talks about it or trains therapists, they may think they could lose their job by not complying with the request of the guest.
Allegations of sexual harassment towards a guest
In the case of a female or male guest with an allegation of sexual harassment (in my experience coming from a male therapist) occurs when touching private areas, improper draping or making a direct sexual approach towards a guest.
For a resort this is a very serious situation that could end up on Tripadvisor, or in a costly legal suit.
I experienced four cases in different resorts, within locations in Mexico and USA. Unfortunately in all of these resorts there are now no male therapists employed.
The allegation needs to be solved at the moment with genuine concern for the accuser and the accused. It needs to be handled with a calm and professional approach.
The recommended procedure:
When a guest makes a statement, such as attempted sexual assault:
• Listen to the guest and reassure him he or she is safe.
• Let the guest know that any complaints of harassment are taken very seriously, and that appropriate corrective measures will be taken.
• Have a witness at all times.
• Invite the guest to another room or spa manager’s office, never leave the guest alone.
• Call the spa manager and/or hotel manager.
• Call the hotel security manager.
• Ensure that the staff member involved does not leave the premises, isolate therapist in another room or office, not with the guest.
• The treatment room must remain closed until the authorities advise or the case does not proceed.
• Record the facts in writing (from both sides separately – with approval of the guest or employee record the conversations).
• Raise testimony of people who came in contact with those involved.
• Depending on the case, the corresponding authorities are notified.
• Those involved do not leave until the authorities arrive or move to the appropriate unit.
• The safety manager, the hotel manager and the authorities involved take the case.
• The legal department and the insurance company must be informed.
LG Wellness Advisor
I had the privilege of working and directing a beautiful, luxury resort spa in Florida. We welcomed many high profile guests for spa services; our clientele ranged from locals to royalty.
My team was always very professional and kept names of guests confidential. On several occasions we had celebrities in for services out of hours to provide privacy. On other occasions royalty required a specific gender therapist. These requests may seem normal, however there is a fine line that can be crossed when exceptions and privileges are granted. We (upper management) spoke on many occasions with human resources to better protect the staff “just in case” anything inappropriate was requested.
One request came from the concierge that guest ‘Mr. XXX’ in one of the suites had requested a female therapist to perform a massage at 3 am. The concierge also added that the guest was requesting a blonde and to make sure she was an attractive service provider. This request was given to me and I spoke to the hotel manager on duty to let them know we do not fulfill such requests and that our service providers can be requested as female or male in gender, however other specific details would not be given or taken.
On another occasion, a celebrity requested a “sexual” massage, the therapist refused and ended the massage. These advances do happen and it is a tough call when you are dealing with “he said, she said” and high profile guests, however I always supported my team and with the help of human resources and security we worked out a plan to protect the staff.
• We offered sexual harassment classes and shared ideas on how to always stay safe.
• We offered a security escort to rooms for “in-room massages” for off-peak hours 9 pm-midnight.
• We removed “in-room” services after 12 am-6 am.
• A panic button was installed in the spa that would directly call security in case of assault.
• Meetings were held regularly to ensure communication.
• Open door policy was always available.
• We appointed a spa services supervisor to oversee and monitor the back of the house during peak treatment hours.
The key to keeping safe is staying informed and alert. Know your team and work closely with security and human resources.
Thank you for broaching this subject; I have always tackled this issue head-on, in my spas and in all my training sessions and consulting projects. This subject is a prerequisite for absolutely everyone in the industry, owners, consultants, managers and therapists.
First and foremost therapists are in charge of the situation, even if they don’t know it.
Proper draping is absolutely key in maintaining a firm line on professionalism. The demeanor in which a therapist carries themselves and touches a guest is also important, contact must be made with intention, firmly marking the area of work with proper draping and corporal landmark delineation and palpation. It is important that the therapist never doubts themselves nor their professionalism.
If a male guest has a natural reaction to the stimulus (which can happen), it does not mean they will take action on this, unless a confusion is created, or intention is not clear. When working the leg area for example, the draping allows for delineation and also bunching of the draping sheet to mask this natural response. If the guests action is blatant or they ask for something beyond the scope of intention, simply and calmly state: “This is a professional massage, would you like me to continue, or not?” Wait for a response; this should curb any further issues. Know that as the therapist you have the authority to simply remove yourself from the room.
If the guest becomes aggressive, the demeanor of the therapist is then to immediately deescalate the situation, and state simply that they must first advise the supervisor. We use the code word “PATTY” (for patty wagon), in my trainings and this code would be calmly stated “Please let PATTY know I will be detained longer in this service” the person receiving the call knows this is an emergency and acts appropriately.
As far as being the victim on the table, it is simple. Guests need to know they are in charge and encouraged to speak up. Guests should always be consulted after the service, and reception needs the skills to observe if anything is off.
I have been on the giving and receiving end of these situations; you are in charge, own it and act like it! Never be afraid to speak up, ever!