The Best Way to Handle Problem Members

At some point, you may find yourself dealing with a member whose behavior warrants membership termination. Here's what you should do.

For the most part, health club members are considerate individuals who demonstrate proper etiquette while working out. There are, however, an unfortunate few who make using the club uncomfortable, or even unsafe, for themselves or others.

In some instances, their bad behavior warrants terminating their membership.

While taking such a step might seem drastic, the safety of other members and club morale may necessitate it.

What’s the legal risk? The greatest risk is a discrimination suit. A person may claim that the action was based on race, disability, or some other factor that can’t legally be taken into account. When weighing expulsion, first ask yourself if the person’s membership deserves, in fact, to be terminated; if you’ve documented the incidents that led to the decision; and, finally, if the individual is a member of a protected class, which might increase any legal liability.

Protected classes include minorities, women, people over 40, and people with disabilities. As author Lewin G. Joel II points out in “Every Employee’s Guide to the Law,” 70% of Americans are members of at least one protected group. The written documentation of conduct and disciplinary steps is especially important when the problem member is in a protected class.

Should I refund their initiation fee? Any obligation to refund this fee would be determined by the membership agreement. If it clearly defines the grounds for termination, and states that the fee will not be returned if the club terminates a membership because of a violation of club rules, the club is in a much better position to defend itself against a claim that it violated the contractual agreement, or consumer protection laws, by not refunding the fee.

“Today, social media outlets, e.g., Twitter and Facebook, make it easy for an upset member to spread negative information about your business.”

However, many IHRSA members conclude that it’s less contentious and legally safer to refund the fee. Many clubs do so, but, for obvious reasons, don’t want to broadcast that fact. If your policy is to not return the initiation fee or the unused portion of dues when terminating a membership, publicize that in your contract and member handbook.

Will I encounter legal or public relations problems? Unfortunately, this is a possibility. Today, social media outlets, e.g., Twitter and Facebook, make it easy for an upset member to spread negative information about your business. Of the IHRSA clubs responding to an IHRSA-issued survey, 27% said they’d faced legal or public relations issues after expelling problem members. However, most of them reported that they’d defended themselves successfully by proving—with documentation—that their actions were based on the member’s inappropriate behavior.

One IHRSA club owner recalled that expelling a member who was rude to club employees produced a “positive reaction” on the part of the staff; and another observed, “If you’re solving a problem, the public relations aspect is positive as far as your members are concerned.” It’s safe to say that if you take appropriate action, you’ll garner the respect of others.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is intended for the general education of IHRSA members. It should not be considered legal advice. Individuals needing legal advice should consult a local attorney who is competent in this area, as laws vary from state to state.

Lilly Prince

Lilly Prince is a contributor to Club Business International.