should I tell my employee she needs to give a clearer “no” to a client who’s interested in her?

A reader writes:

I own a fitness studio, and one of my instructors is a senior in college, Emma. For several weeks, she only had one client for an early morning class that she teaches, a guy I’ll call Ryan. I know this client; he’s a nice guy in his early 20’s and a bit socially awkward. After one such class where it was just the two of them, Ryan asked Emma for her phone number. Emma says she felt caught off-guard and was aware of the fact that it was just the two of them in the space. She gave him her number although she didn’t want to.

Ryan proceeded to text her a few times and added her on social media; he would also linger a bit after classes to talk to her. Emma replied only to texts that were related to the fitness studio and did not add him back on social media. After a few weeks of this, Emma brought me her concerns. Her assessment was that Ryan had never been disrespectful or threatening, but his interest was nevertheless unwanted. Emma said she was unwilling to teach the early morning class if there was a likelihood that Ryan would be her only client and they would be one-on-one.

My solution (which Emma readily agreed to) was to remove her as the instructor for the early morning class. While it’s possible she could have Ryan as a client in a class at a different time of day, it’s highly unlikely that it would be one-on-one, which was her concern. During our discussion, Emma reiterated that Ryan had never been disrespectful or threatening, and she sort of acknowledged that she should not have given him her phone number when he asked. I made no comment whatsoever on that particular point.

For my part, I clearly stated that while she is expected to be kind and courteous to customers, she is under no obligation to cross any personal boundaries, including giving out her phone number. I emphasized that, in that moment when he asked for her number, if she had said anything to Ryan that sounded like “no” and he had still persisted, I would have banned him as a customer.

So that’s where this episode ends (for now?) but I have many thoughts and questions. My view is that responsibility lies on all sides here. Ryan should not ask someone who is working for their number while at their workplace. Emma should have a) said “no” in the moment or b) found another time to tell Ryan directly that she wasn’t interested in him. It feels to me like she is trying to avoid an awkward interaction, but that avoidance means that I as her employer have been inserted into what should have been handled between two young adults as an interpersonal issue. She essentially gave Ryan signals he reasonably understood as “yes” when she really meant “no” … but now won’t clarify it for him. I am unsure if it is within my bounds to point out that disconnect to Emma.

Moving on from here, what is my responsibility if/when Ryan continues to attend Emma’s classes (at a different time of day, with many more people around) and continues to try to talk to her after class, potentially working up the nerve to actually ask her for a date? Do I tell Ryan discreetly that Emma has a boyfriend? (A true but immaterial fact.) Do I tell Emma that she has a responsibility to let Ryan know unequivocally that she’s not interested? (This could be easily arranged with myself or others present.)

My sense is Ryan is not the kind of guy who would catch subtle signals, but would respond courteously to a “no.” Ironically, I wonder if he would have stopped attending the early morning class on his own if he had received that message from Emma! Furthermore, do I have a responsibility to make sure Ryan doesn’t ask out any other instructors while they are at work? If so, why is it my jurisdiction to preemptively squash a young man’s — or young woman’s — potential interest?

The incredibly key thing you’re overlooking here is that a lot of women hesitate to give men a clear and direct no in a situation like this because they have experienced other men having a frighteningly bad reaction to a clear rejection. You only need to look at the news to see horrific examples of this.

That’s not to say Ryan would react poorly to a clear rejection. He might not. But Emma has no way of knowing that, and so chose to prioritize her own safety in the moment. She’s entitled to do that.

Obviously I’m just assuming that’s where Emma is coming from … but it’s a pretty safe assumption to make. Even if she wouldn’t articulate it that way, when women talk about being uncomfortable giving a man a clear and unequivocal rejection, this is nearly always part of the calculus on some level: Will he become a problem? Will his reaction scare me? Will I have to worry that he’ll wait for me in the parking lot one night and make me feel unsafe? Will something worse than that happen? These are exhausting calculations to go through life having to make, and especially so at one’s workplace, where there’s a built-in power differential and she can’t escape being around him. (Yes, you would ban him if he overstepped. She didn’t necessarily know that at the time, and she’s also probably aware that there are a lot of ways he could make her uncomfortable that wouldn’t necessarily get him banned.)

All of which is to say: Sure, Emma could have given him a clear no. But it’s understandable that she didn’t, and the last thing you should do as her boss is to tell her she needs to. She navigated the situation in the way that felt safest to her.

As for your responsibility from here … you do indeed have a responsibility, both legally and ethically, to maintain a work environment where your employees don’t feel harassed. You’d be doing all your employees a favor if you let them tell clients you have a policy preventing them from socializing with clients. You can ask Emma if she’d like you to intervene with Ryan directly, but it should be her call to make, as the person most equipped to judge what will make her feel safest. You definitely shouldn’t tell her that she has a responsibility to give him an unequivocal no, for the reasons above.

{ 679 comments… read them below }

      1. BadMitten*

        I’m a woman and sometimes I do bemoan younger people’s aversion to any kind of confrontation whatsoever. Not all young people (of course) but I do think it’s a mixture of culture and being less sure of yourself when you’re younger.

        I totally understand why she would give her number out in the moment, but I think she could softly reject him, like a “hey sorry my boyfriend doesn’t want me to text you, check out company’s facebook page for event updates” or something. I don’t want young women to have to put up with what my mom put up with in the 70s or even what I put up with in the early 00s, but I do think OP has a point regardless of their gender.

        1. L Dub*

          I don’t think it’s fair to characterize this is a generational issue of wanting to avoid confrontation. For many AFAB folks, this is a matter of safety, and it has nothing to do with age or confrontation.

          1. Kelsi*

            Hard agree. I’m in my 40s and I can see myself getting into a similar situation–I have definitely used the “my boss says we’re not allowed to socialize with customers” line in the past and it felt like a godsend—and even with that extremely gentle rejection, the person got weird and made me feel unsafe (trying to get coworkers to give out my info, implying that he’d still be outside when I left in case I wanted to “break the rules”).

        2. Reluctant Mezzo*

          If I am alone with a man and he makes a move, I am hesitant to give the Cut Direct until I am in a safe space. Ask me why. Or not, please.

        3. ClaireW*

          Look I hate to be morbid but a 15 year old girl literally died yesterday in the UK because a 17yo boy tried to ask her out and she said no. So please, NEVER EVER imply or suggest that a woman should be comfortable telling men no when that woman has had to make a judgement about her own safety in the moment.

          1. Audrey Horne*

            lets not speculate the reason the boy did what he did. eyewitnesses have given several different stories and police haven’t commented on motive as of yet.

        4. Jam Today*

          You’re not entitled to set anyone else’s tolerance for risk, when the penalty for being wrong is often death.

      1. So they all cheap-ass rolled over and one fell out*

        I was thinking the same thing, but even as a man, I am aware (and sad) that many women do not feel safe explicitly rejecting a man’s advances, no matter how unwanted nor how many boyfriends/girlfriends/wives/husbands they already have or don’t have.

        1. Molly Coddler*

          irrelevant and random, but your user name is the best user name i have ever seen in my life. wow that’s awesome.

          1. butter rat*

            This prompted me to google the user name, leading to its source (dating back to before I read AAM), and WOW.

      2. Sage*

        Unfortunately, that is also my experience. In my experience, there are also women who believe than victims of sexual harassment or assault are guilty of provoking the poor perpetrator.

      3. Pet Jack*

        I’m guessing the LW may never have had a personal bad experience. Or even every been hit on in public at all.

        I am 42 and live in a mid sized city, have traveled abroad (sometimes alone) and have, never once, been hit on or asked out by anyone except guys I knew from school or adult club sports or whatever.

        I mean, people SHOULD be aware, and the reason I am is because I am online and read stories all the time, but if I were clueless and only basing on my personal experience, I would not have any experience to fall back on.

        1. allathian*

          Yes, this. I count myself lucky that I’ve never had a man take a rejection poorly enough that I’ve felt threatened by him. The most unpleasant were like “I wasn’t interested in you anyway, who the hell do you think you are?” when they’d until then behaved as if they totally were interested, but I’ve never felt physically threatened, for which I thank my lucky stars.

          When I was a college student I did sometimes use a friend as a fake boyfriend (with his explicit permission) as an excuse why I wouldn’t go on a date with someone else. Sometimes that’s the easiest and least unpleasant way to give a soft rejection.

          My looks have always been average and many of my more attractive friends have had much worse experiences than I. I’ve never had randos on the street ask for my number. The only guys who’ve asked me for a date were people I knew vaguely from somewhere, like former coworkers, or the cousin of a friend who asked me out at the friend’s wedding reception as we danced (and I went on a few dates with him, but we broke up without any drama).

      4. Anon for this*

        The only time I’ve ever asked my employer to intervene because a customer was sexually harassing me, my male coworkers and supervisor were understanding/supportive. The moment I brought it up they arranged a system so I would not have to interact with Mr. Nasty and my supervisor approached management about banning him from the premises.

        My female manager was the one who told me she wouldn’t do anything because I “need to be clear with him and give a firm, direct ‘no.'” Firmly reject a very strong man twice my size who knows where I work *and was a convicted rapist.* My jaw literally dropped when she said that.

        In general I think women are more likely than men to understand this sort of thing… but there are certainly exceptions.

      1. Felicia*

        I may be in the minority on this, but I don’t think it’s immaterial that Emma has a boyfriend – it is a useful tool to squash situations like this. It doesn’t have to be overtly confrontational, but doing something like telling a class a funny story that mentions him. Don’t let the BF be the excuse to she can’t date Ryan, but casually find a way to let him know she is not available.
        But beyond this one situation, the LW needs to be fostering a culture where stuff like this doesn’t happen, and I like Allison’s suggestion that they be armed with a policy to decline socializing with clients.

        1. Becca*

          It’s immaterial because if Emma didn’t have a boyfriend she should still be free to not date anyone she doesn’t want to date and to not be made to feel uncomfortable while doing her job because of it.

        2. Beth*

          It might be a useful tool for *Emma* to use in rejecting someone who’s pursuing her, but it’s not the right tool for *OP* to use to deflect someone who’s pursuing one of their employees. If that’s OP’s tool of choice, then they’ll be back at square 1 when this happens to a currently-single employee. Plus, if OP’s employees realize that’s OP’s go-to tool for this, then their single employees might feel like OP won’t support them in the same way–since, in this hypothetical, they’ve demonstrated that their strategy for handling flirtatious clients relies on the employee already being connected to a man.

          Also, tbh, it doesn’t always work. Plenty of creeps will hear you have a boyfriend and be like “I don’t see a ring on your finger” or “I have a partner too, they don’t need to know” or any number of other things.

          1. Lilac*

            I once told a guy I was in a relationship to heed off his advances. His response was to say, “You lying to me?” in a threatening tone, and then physically block the exit until I told him my boyfriend’s name. (I *was* lying on that occasion – I gave him a fake name – but that’s not the point.) It happened to me nearly a decade ago and I still think about it all the time.

            Sometimes (maybe most of the time!) this tactic works, but there’s also a chance it can escalate the situation. If a person is determined to be a creep, they’re gonna be a creep no matter what.

            1. Observer*

              I once told a guy I was in a relationship to heed off his advances. His response was to say, “You lying to me?” in a threatening tone, and then physically block the exit until I told him my boyfriend’s name.

              OP, please read this a few times. This may sound a bit extreme, but it’s not THAT extreme.

              Which is to say, that you need to offer your staff some basic protection from people who think that they are *entitled* to staff’s attention by virtue of being female and in a service position.

              1. Warrior Princess Xena*

                It *is* an extreme action, as in you have to be an extreme jerk to do it, but it’s not an *unrealistic* one.

              2. San Simeon*

                When I worked at a YMCA in the exercise area, there were elderly people who would come early in the morning to work out. There was a man in his late 70’s who was ‘flirtatious’ but really, was very creepy, and yet when I tried to draw a line and move him along he became very verbally abusive and insulting. Threatening even, and it was scary to me to be verbally insulted in front of all the other patrons. Finally, one time a young man came over and pulled him away after the older man grabbed my arm and I was in shock and froze.

                When I spoke to the Director of the Y, she was pretty non-committal altho she she SAID she supported her staff and did not tolerate this harassment of her staff. But, nothing was done except now the creepster was even more insulting because I ‘got him in trouble.’ It was horrendous. By your late 70’s you probably know very well that you are an abusive old man, and yet my own Director did not support or protect me. Women have so many unspoken burdens like this from potentially harmful/dangerous men, it is exhausting. I am really glad we are talking about it openly now, maybe – it can change now.

            2. Dina*

              I’ve told guys that I have a girlfriend (which was true) and had them tell me, “Well, that doesn’t matter!”

              It’s not the get-out-of-creepos-free card you’d expect it to be.

          2. Kacihall*

            I had a VERY persistent customer ask me questions about why I had to work if i had a boyfriend, following up with what did I do if my bf couldn’t satisfy me, and what was I doing Friday night? Then following me out to my car because he waited for my shift to end. my manager laughed at me and said it was a compliment. My best friend (who also worked there) eventually asked her husband to come escort us to the car whenever he could – he was a security guard and would come in uniform. That stopped the stalking but not the comments. I had to quit and move states for that.

            1. Mad Harry Crewe*

              You had a stalker, not a persistent customer. I am so sorry that happened, it sounds terrifying.

          3. Totally Minnie*

            Exactly. If Emma chooses to use the “I already have a boyfriend” line, that’s fine. But if OP intervenes, and I would argue that she should, her line should be “it’s not appropriate to ask someone out while they’re at work and I need you to stop pursuing my employee romantically if you would like to keep your membership here.”

          4. Elizabeth West*

            Or, like Alison said, they react badly. This happened to me in a food-service job once. It was a closed environment — cafeteria in a factory — but a worker, considerably older than I was at the time (sigh), who had mistaken my friendliness for interest (again, sigh) asked me out during lunch, in the line in front of everyone.

            When I politely declined, he got mad and … well, had a tantrum. In line, in front of all his coworkers. Luckily my boss stepped in. He didn’t do it again and avoided me after that — I imagine everyone who saw it (quite a few women as well) gave him hell for it.

            It gave me the whim-whams thinking about what could have happened if he’d got me by myself out on the floor and asked me then. I don’t blame Emma one bit.

          5. KayDee*

            Yeah, some guys just won’t quit for anything. In my 20s, I taught community college. A student asked me out in front of the entire class on one of the first days of class, then proceeded to do so over and over again all semester. Repeatedly telling him no didn’t change anything. Telling him I would lose my job didn’t change anything. Telling him I had a boyfriend (which I did, it wasn’t the reason I was saying no to him, but I got to the point I was throwing out anything I could think of) didn’t work. The last day of class he yelled at me from the other side of the class room with the entire class there to tell me it was my last chance. I indulged myself in a very unprofessional moment of sarcasm, something along the lines of “oh no, however will I survive” and jumped into teaching class to change the subject.

            Then there was the student who hunted down my facebook account (at a time you probably still had to have a email from a handful of universities to sign up) and made an incredibly inappropriate comment on one of my pictures. I (obviously) immediately deleted the pic to get rid of the comment. His response was to message me that he thought I was cool, but apparently not, what a stick in the mud or something along those lines… for deleting an inappropriate comment that could have put the job that was *barely* paying my rent at risk. No dude, I’m not going to risk being homeless to protect your fragile little ego.

          6. anon for this*

            “Plenty of creeps will hear you have a boyfriend and be like ‘I don’t see a ring on your finger’ or ‘I have a partner too, they don’t need to know’ or any number of other things.”

            And a ring won’t stop some guys. My late mother was a visiting nurse for many years.

            Some of her patients — or their husbands — would say things like, “You got an old man, sweetie?”

            Then they’d see her wedding ring and add, “It don’t matter. I’m married, too.”

            Keep in mind that this job involved traveling by herself to patients’ homes in sparsely populated areas of the US in the pre-cellphone era. (Even pay phones were hard to find in some of these places.)

        3. 1-800-BrownCow*

          Having a boyfriend, or a husband, doesn’t deter some creeps from pursuing someone they’re interested in.

          Ask me how I know.

              1. Rainy*

                If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that over the course of my life I’d have a hell of a lot of nickels.

                1. Csethiro Ceredin*

                  Yup. Or something about “well I bet your boyfriend doesn’t have [insert reference to money, possessions, or… physical characteristics here].

              2. Former barista*

                Ugh yes. When I was a barista, I did the whole “I have a boyfriend” to a guy who asked ne to dinner. He was a customer, I’d never really had a conversation with him. His response was “So?” “ I don’t go out on dates with other guys.” His response? “I’m not asking you out on a date.” Okay, well it’s still was super creepy.

                1. Mister_L*

                  On my last job a colleague who had quit came in after his last day to say good bye to everyone. When we were alone he first asked if I was interested in having sex with him and after I turned him down he doubled down by asking, if I would at least let him see my private parts. (And when I denied that request he offered money.)

                  I’m a rather tall cis ace guy, so I can laugh about it.
                  That being said, my sympathies to everyone who was hit on and couldn’t just ignore it like I could.

              1. Falling Diphthong*

                “You sound like a wacky minor character with a history of bad decisions who’s going to turn up colorfully dead on Justified.”
                “Thank you! Just the vibe I wanted to hit!”

        4. Anonys*

          It’s immaterial in the sense that whether she is in a relationship should have no bearing on how she conducts herself in such a situation.

          In reality I totally agree it is indeed a useful tool, particularly to deter someone who hasn’t actually asked you out but is being socially friendly in a way that feels like maybe (defintely) the interest is more romantic then friendly, such as here. Dropping some “gotta go, my boyfriend is picking me up” or “yes, my weekend was great, went apple picking with my boyfriend” does often work wonders

          1. GrooveBat*

            Women shouldn’t have to do that. And I personally would find it exhausting to have to continually lie about a fictitious boyfriend to people I’m regularly working with.

            A well-structured non-fraternization policy is the way to go here.

            1. Anonys*

              Women also shouldn’t have to walk with keys in their hand at night or carry pepper spray in case of an attack.

              The fact remains that as a woman, my lived experience is, dropping your boyfriend into conversation casually is an excellent tool to get rid of unwanted attention (and Emma’s bf is real, not fictious). It shouldnt be, but it just is a sure way to signal unavailability.

              1. GrooveBat*

                No, and you’re promoting a sexist and unproductive strategy that doesn’t address the root of the issue, which is that *a patron of this business is behaving inappropriately to a female staff member.*

                THAT is what LW needs to deal with, and they can’t do that by encouraging their staff member to lie.

                1. Anonys*

                  Emma is in a relationship, so it wouldn’t be a lie.

                  And I 100% agree OP mustn’t tell Emma she should mention her boyfriend to Ryan or shut Ryan down in another way, she needs to address Ryan’s behavior, not Emma’s. That’s not what my (and other comments) here were suggesting, we were just saying, a casual “btw I have a boyfriend” often works with pushy guys in ways that “I am not interested in you specifically” does not.

        5. Falling Diphthong*

          A lot of guys who don’t care that a woman said no abruptly care when they are told she has a male owner who has said no. His opinion they respect.

          That doesn’t mean it’s on every woman to claim she has a man whose territory they would be poaching if they persist.

          1. SheLooksFamiliar*

            Exactly this. For some men, if you’re not dating, engaged to, or married to someone, you are On The Market. You should accept their advances because it’s not like you have a valid reason not to like, oh, I don’t know, your lack of interest in dating them. /s

            No one should ever feel like they have to invoke a relationship to get someone to back off.

          2. Sloanicota*

            It’s more than that. Having a boyfriend provides a face-saving reason why she isn’t responding to you. It’s not about you being creepy or her not liking you. It’s a black-and-white reason that makes sense to a certain type of guy, meaning they are less likely to react in anger. Does it work 100% of the time, no definitely not, but it can be easier for someone to accept than “I’m not interested.”

            1. SheLooksFamiliar*

              Well, here’s the thing: I’ve used a boyfriend or even fiance as a reason to turn someone down gently. Not only did that not stop most guys – ‘I don’t see him here now!’ – some of them took it as a challenge – ‘You’re not married yet!’ or ‘Hey, I’m married too!’

              Nope. If someone is being pushy or inappropriate, I don’t really care about helping them save face. Let them deal with consequences or the harsh reality of their unwillingness to take ‘No’ for an answer.

              Ban them from the retail establishment, gym, restaurant, dry cleaner, car wash, whatever. Report them to your employer – HR, their boss, your boss, the owner. File a complaint with your college’s Office of Civil Rights. Go to your church’s clergy to report habitual unwanted attention. Do whatever it takes to make them face the music, not save face.

              I agree that some people will react with anger and possibly escalate, even if you’re kind with your words. That means getting to know you wasn’t really their goal: control and conquest were. If they escalate, you call the police.

            2. GrooveBat*

              “Face-saving” for whom? Why should she need a face-saving reason for herself? And he certainly doesn’t deserve one if he’s hitting on someone at their place of work.

              1. F as in Frank*

                it is face-saving for him, thus protecting her from potential violence.

                For the LW, you need to put together a non fraternization policy and communicate this to your clients. Please worry your staff’s peace of mind and safety over “a young man’s — or young woman’s — potential interest”

        6. Lilac*

          But the issue here isn’t that Emma didn’t have a good enough reason not to date Ryan. She already has a perfect reason: she doesn’t want to.

          It’s true that in our culture, telling someone you’re in a relationship can be an effective way to stop them from flirting with you. (Not always! But at least some of the time.) And if Emma decides to use that tactic, she can and it might work for her—but it’s not her employer’s job to advise her on that front. It IS her employer’s job to ensure that she’s safe at work, no matter how she decides to say no to this dude.

          1. Anonys*

            Yes, but the difficulty is, Ryan hasn’t actually asked her out or anything from what I can tell. And casually working her boyfriend into the conversation can be low-key and work wonders whereas saying: “hey, I get the sense that you are romantically interested in me and just wanted to let you know I am not” is awkward for most people.

            I agree it’s not the employer’s place to tell her to do that though (and for all we know, she might have). What matters is that a client is making her uncomfortable

            1. Rainy*

              I wear a wedding ring and still get hit on by randos in public, and I’m almost 50. (It’s slowed down a lot, which is great, but it hasn’t stopped.)

                1. Notamanagerijustayoneontv*

                  I have found that while being fat cuts down on the frequency, the potential for a bad reaction when you reject them is worse. They feel that you should be grateful they decided to pay you attention at all. In my experience anyway.

              1. KayDee*

                I talked to a woman who has traveled extensively for work for most of her career. She said that she got hit on all the time in hotel bars and places like that that work travelers frequent, right up until she and her husband separated and she stopped wearing her ring.

                1. Laser99*

                  I have heard that it is more effective to wear only an engagement ring, bc creeps will figure you’re in the starry-eyed phase and all that, but if you are actually married, maybe you’re bored with him and receptive to a little side action. I’ll pause to let you all emit a collective groan.

            2. Anonys*

              It’s always weird to me when people say: Oh so and so must be married he/she wears a wedding ring. It’s one of those things I personally don’t notice at all.

              My parents for example have been married for decades and don’t wear rings whereas I am single but regularly wear my grandma’s wedding band as a momento.

              1. allathian*

                Yes, I don’t wear my wedding ring and haven’t for years. I sometimes have eczema on my hands that makes wearing a ring difficult. I used to wear my ring for special occasions, but now it’s just tight enough to be uncomfortable. I can’t remember seeing either of my parents ever wear their rings.

              2. Lenora Rose*

                My wedding ring was lost at a temp job in a plastics factory (I am still deeply resentful; I still have the engagement ring at least, which was actually the much nicer one) but I am still married.

          2. Lurkers R Us*

            Agree that OP should have a policy about instructors not dating clients. It would also be a good idea to have more than one employee on-site any time the facility is open to ensure that an instructor doesn’t feel trapped if they’re cornered by a persistent client.

            1. Princess Sparklepony*

              +100. Definitely make that not dating policy visible. And yes, being one on one in a class – are there other people around?

              One gym I went to had the weight room down a narrow hallway far away from the cardio area, it was creepy. I usually worked out with my ex, so that felt better but then he got a stalker…. It wasn’t great. A guy who wanted to out muscle him but wasn’t even in his same league. Still had an attitude of menace to him. It was not a great situation.

        7. bird*

          I generally don’t correct language when there’s not an important communication issue (especially because malapropisms are fun!), but “squash” in this context was in the initial post, too, so…

          “Squash” is a physical squeezing action (or a vegetable). “Quash” means to end something in a non-physical sense, like to quash a rumor.

          1. ThatGirl*

            While I agree with you from a word-nerd point of view that “quash” is better, squash has had a similar meaning over the years, so this isn’t really worth arguing over.

            1. bird*

              Agreed, and apologies if I wasn’t clear that I don’t believe it makes a difference. I study both linguistics and misconceptions / misinformation for fun (I’m very boring), which is why I mentioned it wasn’t a communication issue and I just love malapropisms. Squash / quash is my second favorite (hilarious mental image) after “nip it in the butt / bud” (even more hilarious mental image).

              1. Princess Sparklepony*

                OK, nip it in the butt had me laughing aloud. I have never heard that but I can see how bud got morphed into butt. The visual it brings is funny.

              2. Timothy (TRiG)*

                I collect eggcorns too. They’re fun. I think my favourite so far is let’s shade some light on that.

        8. Raisin Walking to the Moon*

          @Felicia Nope, and not only because it invalidates women who don’t or aren’t currently dating a man. Tell the wrong guy “my boyfriend wouldn’t like it,” and he’ll either suggest you cheat on him, grill you for details, or flat-out call you a liar and keep giving you trouble.
          Guess how I know.

          1. Anon for this*

            ^Exactly this. On study abroad in college, I was sitting and studying while waiting for a train. Dude sits down next to me, puts his arm around me, and asks if I have a boyfriend. I shrug off the arm and say yes, and he says, shit you not, “oh, you have an American boyfriend, would you also like an Italian boyfriend?” I did a lot of solo side trips that semester and in retrospect I was incredibly lucky that (a) the guy didn’t follow me when I responded to his question by abruptly getting up and walking away and (b) that was the worst thing that happened to me during my solo travels.

            1. Rachael*

              Ooh, yes – I got the ‘guy leans in closer and asks if I want him to be my weekend boyfriend’. I was just lucky he got off the train at the next stop, he had strong ‘follows you home from the station’ vibes!

          2. Wendy Darling*

            For some men there is only one acceptable answer, and it is the answer they want. Anything other than “yes” is merely an opening for negotiations.

            I don’t know what the solution is. Well, I do, it’s for the culture to change. But short of that there really isn’t a right answer, unfortunately.

        9. Rose*

          This is frankly a dangerous level of stupidity and you need to stop. I waitresses in my 20s and clearly telling men I had a boyfriend did not stop them from making advances and then screaming at me, getting in my face, following me to my car, or threatening me.

          Stop putting the onus for these things on the women. We have plenty of evidence that there is nothing we can say, short of a yes, that will keep us safe.

          1. Nicole Maria*

            This isn’t an issue for all women though, just a note. I’m definitely a woman but this isn’t something I would ever deal with.

        10. Jalee*

          I should not have to lie and say I have a “boyfriend” not tell teh truth and say I have a “boyfriend”. I should just be able to say I am not interested and that’s it. using a “boyfriend” just perpetuates this nonsense.

        11. Dancing Otter*

          It implies that Emma WOULD be fair game except that another man has already claimed her.
          Emma is not property. She can say “No” to whomever she chooses, without having to be under the protection of a man.

        12. frustratedTrainee*

          It’s surprising you think men who don’t take “no” well take this well. I attempted to use this in my 20s because unfortunately men are more likely to take “i have a boyfriend” seriously than “no” but I STILL constantly had men reacting badly.

          “Where IS he then. Why isn’t he taking care of you. Get over here so I can take care of you.”
          *Insisting that I’m a liar and screaming at/following me for blocks
          *telling me to go kill myself
          “I don’t see him. He’s not here so it doesn’t matter” *touches me without permission*


          And it’s not women’s responsibility to use boyfriends, real or fake as a shield, as much as it is men’s responsibility to not be more likely to back down from “i have a boyfriend” than “no”

          1. frustratedTrainee*

            Sorry I did mean to give a TW there and it doesn’t look like I can update it, apologies if this got to anyone deeper than food for thought:/

      2. I edit everything*

        Preemptively: Put in place a policy of no socializing with clients and made sure her employees were aware of it and empowered to use it in situations like this. Perhaps established some kind of procedure for when a trainer feels uncomfortable–walking to a more crowded zone of the gym, using a code word with another employee that alerts them that the client needs diverted, etc.
        Rescheduling Emma was good, but maybe asking other trainers to keep an eye open when Ryan is in the gym. Keeping a “watchlist” of sorts. Asking Emma what she would find useful, help her feel safe, or if she’d like LW to say something to Ryan like, “Hey, Emma told me you’re following her socials. Just wanted to let you know we’ve recently instituted a policy against socializing, including social media, between trainers and clients, so I’ll be asking her to block you.”

        1. Tracy Flick*

          I don’t think that was a good solution, actually! It’s not fair to cut an employee’s hours, and it may not be legal. That could result in Emma losing income.

          1. jasmine*

            Yes, I don’t think rescheduling was a good move even if Emma agreed to it. There were better options here that would have allowed her to both feel safe and not let her work schedule be affected.

            1. Beth*

              You can, and I hope OP did, and anyways it sounds like Emma was on board with this solution in this specific case…but I agree that it’s a bad first-step option to ask the employee to either give up a shift or change their work hours. That’s inherently asking the employee to bear the onus of avoiding the problem client, when it should be OP’s responsibility to ensure that the problem client stops being a problem.

              For example, OP could have scheduled someone else in the morning alongside Emma so Emma wouldn’t be alone with Ryan. They could have implemented a clear “Please treat our trainers as professionals, this isn’t a flirting spot” code of conduct for their clients. They could have banned Ryan as a client (which it sounds like they offered to do if he behaved worse, but didn’t offer as an option for his current level of bad/uncomfortable behavior). None of those would have impacted Emma to the same degree.

              1. TechWorker*

                I’m not sure that asking *two* trainers to run a class that one person is showing up to is a good use of resources. (To be honest, running a class with only one attendee sounds like a class you might need to cancel anyway…)

                1. Beth*

                  It wouldn’t have to be a trainer! Maybe the early morning could become OP’s time to do paperwork, for example. But I’m not saying OP would need to do all of these–just trying to demonstrate that they have a variety of options available to them other than expecting Emma to take on the burden of rearranging her schedule to avoid Ryan.

          2. Lilac*

            My understanding was that Emma was moved to a different shift so she wasn’t missing out on any income – but of course that’s an assumption and I could be wrong.

            In any case, even if it worked in this specific situation, it probably wouldn’t work as a blanket policy for this kind of thing. Not all employees are able to reschedule their shifts, especially if OP employs college students (who presumably have to plan around their class schedule).

          3. JSPA*

            Depends whether Emma was actually happy to not be in nearly-empty-gym in the early morning, regardless of Ryan. Sure, maybe it worked with her school schedule, or she originally welcomed having a sparsely-attended class, or she’s a morning person. But it’s equally likely that it’s nobody’s favorite shift, and she got it because she didn’t have seniority. If it works for Emma, then it’s a good option.

            Also, without being all heterosexist, or assuming all men are looking for a lady when they reach out to befriend people, I do think we can default to an assumption of romantic interest.

            She’s slightly younger than he is; she’s presumably in good shape and thus conventionally physically appealing; he’s not backing down, when she shows no interest in friendship; and above all, he didn’t give her his number because they had some interest in common she might want to follow up on (“text me if you want to join us for game night, and I’ll get you on the gaming group text”)–he ASKED FOR HER NUMBER.

            IMO, that points in the direction of him wanting to follow up on his interest in her, and wanting her to have an interest in him–as opposed to having shared interests in some general “friends who do stuff together” way.

            Hitting on a trainer is like hitting on a barrista; a bad idea right off the bat, but if you must do it, you give them your number, and make it clear that the ball is entirely in their court. Do not be overly familiar, do not wink, do not leer, do not add them to your socials, and do not pursue them further, unless and until they contact you and indicate interest.

          4. Colleen Whalen*

            Huh??? I think you misread the post. The employees hours are not going to be reduced and there was no mention of Emma having fewer hours and earnings reduced. The manager will tell the creeper client who refused to take “no” for Emma’s refusal to date him – that staff is banned from contacting clients on social media – also a ban on employees dating clients. There are many jobs that ban employees from socializing with customers. Teachers cannot socialize with students off campus. Doctors and lawyers are banned from dating their clients. Psychiatrists and therapist counselors are banned from dating their patients.

            Many years ago I worked at the front reception counter at Veterans Administration medical clinic. The majority of our patients were men and I was CONSTANTLY getting pestered to give out my phone number and date complete strangers who would walk up to the front counter to check in for their appointment. Less than 10 seconds of conversation and “Gimme your phone number” “What time do you get off from work”. Day in and day out. There was no official rule against staff dating patients – but I just made up my own rule and told these overtly aggressive creeps “There is no fraternizing allowed out of the VA medical clinic with patients”. In the military officers cannot be buddy buddy with soldiers of lower rank – the “No Fraternization Rule” – so I just tweaked that and told the creepers who relentlessly pestered me for my phone number that I was banned from fraternizing with patients due to the military banning fraternization. Most of the time it worked, but there were STILL VERY AGGRESSIVE MEN who just would not quit.

            The worst of the lot was a creeper who wanted me to move in with him! He was a VA medical clinic patient and whenever he was at the front reception desk, he kept pestering me to move into his apt, with the inferrence that I would be sexually servicing him……he would show up at the clinic several times a week -he did not have any medical appointment – he would just loiter a very long time at the front reception desk and relentlessly pester me to be his girlfriend, give him my phone number.

            I finally got him out of my hair when I started paging the security guard. When the security guard would come to the front desk I would ask him to physically escort the creeper out of the building since he did not have an appointment, was loitering and sexually harrassing me. THAT WORKED after the fifth time the creeper was made to leave the bldg. He finally left me alone.

            Then a male co-worker who was married AND had a mistress started sexually harrassing me during work hours. He would bring big boquets of flowers and little trinkets like Dollar Store costume jewelry trying to ply his way into me becoming his girlfriend. I told him a 100 times NO – these guys just do NOT listen.

            I finally got that creeper to stop pestering me to date him……….this is hilarious and a true story. Well, he had a girlfriend mistress on the side, while he was married and he would always brag about his adultery to all our co-workers. His girlfriend mistress paramour would frequently call him at work. One day I answered the phone and she asked to be transfered to Michael. That is when I dropped the bomb and told the girlfriend mistress that Michael was constantly flirting with me every day, several times a day and pestering me to be his girlfriend – bringing me boquets of flowers and Dollar Store costume jewelry (which of course I always rejected) then I mentioned that a married man who cheats on his wife – will also cheat on his concubine mistress girlfriend who is “On the Side” and now Michael is trying to date me, although I repeatedly turned him down – she needs to keep an eagle on him because he is a Dirty Bird playboy. She got all worked up and sputtering, fuming, irate….so I terminated the call. 30 minutes later, Michael comes over to my desk and is furious “My girlfriend just dumped me and it is all your fault”. I told him it was HIS fault for sexually harrassing me and I told him a 100 times I was NEVER EVER going to give him my phone number or date him. At that point, Michael finally got the message and left me alone. I heard from a woman in a different department one month later, that Michael had zoomed in on her and was pestering her for her phone number, pushing her to date him, blah, blah, blah. Guys like that NEVER give up – they just move on and find another woman to pester. THAT is why the OP letter writer who is the gym manager needs to terminate the guy who is sexually harrassing Emma to be his girlfriend. Guys like that NEVER give up. Even if he leaves Emma alone, he will likely zoom in on a different female gym employee.

            It is ALWAYS the employer/manager’s responsibility to immediately shut down ANY sexual harrassment. If I was the gym manager, I would have already terminated the client from receiving any more exercise classes at the gym. Emma had repeatedly refused to date him – he will not take no for an answer. It is pointless for Emma to tell the creeper she is dating her boyfriend – inevitiablity, the response from the creeper is “well you can still have sex with me and your boyfriend will never know”. Women who are married are told ‘Does not matter you have a husband – we can hook up on the sly and your husband doesn’t have to know” OR worst of all “Break up with your boyfriend and date me cos’ I’m a real stud and can satisfy you better than him”. The creeper client needs to be terminated from this gym and go exercise somewhere else!

            The entire time I was reading the OP’s letter it made me wince. Sounds like the gym manager is a woman BUT still a prevailing belief that somehow Emma is at fault for not telling the customer emphatically enough to knock it off and cease and desist. This plays into the centuries long belief that women “lure” men and “intice” them into getting all sexually excited because women are somehow just little honey pots of sexual allure that those poor guys are unable to resist. It is somehow the woman’s fault that she is being sexually harrassed. Also the womans fault because none of us are emphatic enough when we tell these creeps to leave us alone. All it should take is just one “NO” and that should be enough. Unfortunately, most of the time when a woman says “NO” she is ignored by the creeper – then blamed for not being emphatic enough.

            I’m 69 years old but back in the day when I was at the height of my youth and sexually harrassed by male co-workers, male clients and mail employers – frequently I would get pushback because “well you are SO attractive, I just cannot help it”. I even got that remark back in 1987 when I was kidnapped and raped by a thug – some guy told me “I’m not surprised you were raped, because you are so attractive”. This was in a workshop and he was the facilitator and we were in a group of 12 other people. Not one word of support from ANY of the other people in the room – they all thought it was totally normal for this guy to tell me that somehow I was “responsible” for being raped – based on “how attractive” I was to the rapist, who gee whiz just could not control himself.

            1. captain5xa*

              I just want to say I am so sorry you were kidnapped and raped! And no, “attractiveness” does not enter into it at all – totally not your fault!

            2. Bruce*

              Holy ****, that is a lot to have gone through. My late wife worked in a very male job, she was a black-belt and a couple of times when she was groped she showed the guy that if he did it again he’d be going to the hospital with broken fingers. Narrowly escaping one time is what inspired her to take up her martial arts, along with some other bad experiences… but it was her choice to be ready to kick ass, it should not be expected in general.

              If it helps, I’ve been working for more than 40 years and things have improved since my early days… about 10 years ago my company fired a harasser, some of us encountered him later in a company lobby and it was clear he wanted to crawl under a rock and hide >:-|

        2. RunShaker*

          Adding…..the LW needs it to be clear to their employees that they have employees back for something like Ryan and other possible harassment issues. Clear communication on policies so that employees don’t have to worry about loosing hours/job.
          It’s easy when you’re not in middle of situation to say “why didn’t you just say no?” I’ve found myself doing that to a lot of different situations and I continue to remind myself to stop. At 51 yrs, my friend & I found ourselves in weird situation being hit on by older, drunk guy that wouldn’t take a no. My friend ran to hide in women’s restroom, another guy in our friend group chewed him out, & I ended up yelling at old creep. Old creep wouldn’t back down even after friend spoke to him which is concerning. If creep isn’t backing down after another man told him off, what could/would he do next? Now I think back about what happened & asking myself why didn’t I do more in beginning. But it’s same reaction as Emma. You don’t know guy & don’t want something crazy happening.

        3. Liane*

          Put a “no socializing with clients” policy in place today, communicate it to employees today, and add it prominently to paperwork the client, old and new, fill out. Preferably as a line that requires initials. This way, LW or their staff, can more easily shut down nonsense like, “But I’m a nice guy, so if I’d known it was against the rules, I wouldn’t have asked, because I’m a nice guy.”

          1. Purpleshark*

            & articulate this to clients when they sign a contract. This will empower her to say to the statement –
            “But I’m a nice guy, so if I’d known it was against the rules, I wouldn’t have asked, because I’m a nice guy.”
            “What you are asking me will put my job in jeopardy. You need to stop asking me.”

          2. Elizabeth West*

            YES THIS.

            OP said they would back up Emma — make sure you do this for everyone who works there and that any assistant managers or supervisors are on board with that as well.

          3. Anon in Canada*

            Thing is, you don’t want to ban socializing between people who both actually want to socialize. Those are fitness instructors, not therapists! (Therapists would be one of the very few professions where such a rule makes sense.)

            Just allow staff to say there is such a policy, even though there isn’t.

            1. Mr. Shark*

              I think you should have the policy, but allow the workers to police it themselves. That way, any socializing is the exception.

            2. I Have RBF*


              You need to actually have the policy of “No fraternization between employees and clients or other staff.” Because what if they do get into a relationship that then goes bad? What if the “nice guy” client that one of your instructors decides to date turns out to be an abuser? Now it spills over into the workplace.

              Around my house we have an expression: “Don’t shit in the kitchen.” It means, crudely, don’t mix business and romance. The kitchen in this case is the workplace (your ability to eat), the shit is romance between coworkers or employees and clients.

              If you make it a blanket policy, then you protect even your shy employees.

          4. Ellis Bell*

            Yeah, I’m kind of taken a back that the OP thinks this is “two young adults ( with a) interpersonal issue”. Emma is at work, and cannot move freely away from unwanted attention like she might in her personal life. It’s a good, but fairly basic support, that OP has given the green light to refuse or ban a customer, but it’s not always safe to say no to (or ban!) men, and lots of women prefer tactical avoidance. If a man doesn’t know he can’t target a woman trapped at work, I don’t trust him to accept a direct no or deal with rejection. When I worked in customer facing roles my bosses always understood this and allowed me to remove myself or added the presence of others. Most women protect their safety with avoidance and expect not to be alone in unsafe situations at work. Lots of men are courteous until they’re not.

          5. Laser99*

            When I worked in retail, telling a customer I wasn’t allowed to date customers always evoked the same response. “Well I’ll just stop coming in!”

        4. Former Instructor*

          I commented below but just to keep it in the thread – please don’t ban social media! That’s often how instructors build classes and get private clients that are often key to making enough money to pay bills. Encourage instructors to create separate social media accounts for their Professional selves rather than give out private info.

        5. bird*

          I’m surprised, honestly, that there wasn’t already a policy in place. I would have assumed this happens so frequently to women who work in gyms that most gym managers would be aware of the safety and liability issues at play here!

        6. Faith the Twilight Slayer*

          I’m just gonna point out that removing an instructor because a member of a class is being sketchy is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT THE WRONG THING TO DO. You don’t remove the person who isn’t causing the issue. All this does is show the employee that you’re willing to tolerate shitty behavior from a paying member, and that just punishes the employee. Emma is going to realize, very soon, that her boss just isn’t on her side here because she’s uncomfortable handling problem clients. I know we’re supposed to be kind in comments, but it’s taking a lot of self control to not write what I really feel. Let’s just call it extreme disappointment.

        7. Distracted Librarian*

          A no fraternization policy is definitely in order here–and tell Ryan about it and let him know that means he can’t ask employees for their phone numbers or add them on socials. If he continues, his membership will be terminated.

          I’m also concerned about Emma (or anyone) being alone with a client in the studio. If it’s unavoidable, please install security cameras and make sure they’re visible (plus prominent signs indicating the space is under 24-hour video surveillance). That may reduce the odds of someone getting aggressive with your staff.

        8. Consider This*

          A problem with this for example. My husband works as a trainer at a gym. The gym is in our neighborhood and many people like our neighbors or people who are parents of friends of our kids and etc. Saying my husband can’t social (either on social media or in real life) just wouldn’t work. So while that sounds like a good policy in theory when your gym is part of the community, it isnt actually practical.

      3. Jessica*

        Contact Ryan.

        Tell Emma to unfriend him on social media, then speak to Ryan and say, “Hey, my understanding is that one of our trainers accepted social media friend requests from you and gave you her private number. I’m sorry, but we have a policy that our trainers not give out personal information to clients. I’ve asked her to unfriend you on social media, and I need to ask you not to use her personal number to contact her. If you need to get in touch with her, you can do so through the gym number. Thanks for your understanding!”

        And then put that policy in place.

        Personal training is like massage–it’s a business that is unusually physically intimate for a business. (Depending on the trainer’s style, there might not be that much actual physical contact, but the client still has a level of physical vulnerability and intimacy given that they’re doing things that are difficult, and their trainer is there helping them.) Especially in our touch-starved COVID world, it’s easy to understand why people develop emotional attachments to their trainers, and when the trainer is of a gender the client is attracted to, those attachments can become romantic/sexual.

        A responsible business owner should account for that and protect their employees by, essentially, placing their personal lives out of reach for clients. My last trainer gave advice and information via text, so I had a phone number for him, but it was a work-specific phone his employer provided. My massage therapist wanted me to send her info about a contractor I recommended, but company policy meant I had to leave it with the front desk to give her rather than emailing her with it.

        (Most of this, I understand, is to protect the trainers and massage therapists from awkward client interest, but it’s also an anti-competition thing, so they can’t offer their services outside their workplace to clients they gained through the workplace.)

        Dealing with unwanted romantic interest is a job hazard in jobs that involve physical contact with clients, but the businesses that employ them can and should be doing their part to shield their employees as much as possible, and to give employees a policy they can fall back on to decline advances from clients without it being awkward. (The company can and should, in the eyes of the client, put itself in the position of being the “bad guy” preventing outside-of-work contact so it’s not on the trainer.)

          1. GrooveBat*

            Then, as suggested above, the instructors should create separate social media accounts for their professional interactions.

          2. True Faux*

            Gaining clients by asking employees to connect with current clients on social media is a bad strategy.
            For businesses with employees, like this studio, the *business* engages through social media to gain clients. They might ask employees to promote the studio’s posts, but the individual employees are not generally using their personal profiles for the business.
            Individual sole proprietors with no employees sometimes have a separate page or business profile, or when they use their personal profile, boundaries tend to be in place between what is visible publically and what is visible to actual friends. People who don’t implement those boundaries quickly learn why they should do so.

            1. Hiring Mgr*

              I think it’s more that some instructors may work for several different places, and people will follow them to classes rather than just go to one facility

              1. Danielle*

                I mean, they can definitely still make it a rule as a condition of the contract that the IC (contractor) signs. Whether they should is another question but I don’t see why they logistically couldn’t

                1. Consider This*

                  What do you about the case where the gym is part of the community and both the instructor and the member are part of that community. So for example they might be neighbors or have kids that go to the same school or be on the same softball team or some other reason why they would want/need to connect on a personal social media page?

      4. The Shenanigans*

        Told Emma she did nothing wrong, first of all. Then, reminded her that she doesn’t ever have to give a “nice guy” a chance and told her that her feelings of being uncomfortable or scared are always valid even if there’s no obvious reason for it. We feel fear for a reason but women are gaslighted out of it from day one. I’d also hand her The Gift of Fear. And then I’d fire the client.

      5. PlainJane*

        Not the original commenter, but I think that employers/managers need to be clear at the outset that employees are not only not required to give their phone numbers, but that they should not do so, and why. Anyone who works with the general public is susceptible to this kind of harassment, and a clear and early statement from the employer that numbers should never given would have given Emma the social tool she needed to escape without it being a personal rejection–“Sorry, we’re not allowed to give our numbers to customers.” It puts Ryan in the place he needs to be–“You are a customer like all other customers and that is the limit of our relationship”–and does not put Emma in the place of choosing whether or not she wants to give her number to someone. I might even post it in the gym to give a known reference point that she can refer to.

      6. GrooveBat*

        Alison already spelled it out in her response: Set a clear policy for employees that prohibits socializing with clients.

      7. Sara C*

        I would love to just see a studio policy of “This is a fitness studio, not a dating app! Our instructors are professionals. Please treat them as such as DO NOT ask them out or put them in the uncomfortable position of rejecting your unwanted advances.” Post it on the walls, and enforce it if people violate it.

    1. Juicebox Hero*

      I don’t think the OP is blaming Emma so much as “I would have no trouble giving Ryan an unconditional no, so Emma should be able to do the same.” Which is why Alizon goes into so much detail about why Emma would hesitate to do so. Turning a man down is a fraught and potentially dangerous thing and self-preservation is more important than “shoulda coulda woulda”.

      1. ThatGirl*

        Yeah, I can see the OP thinking “well, if she had just clearly turned him down, I’m sure it would have been fine” without really thinking it through. It’s not great, but it doesn’t make her automatically a man.

        1. Tio*

          I think OP also has some bias to believing Ryan is a good guy, and therefore reasonable, and therefore safe. Emma may not have the same information or opinion!

      2. Cinnamon Hair*

        I think LW may be more comfortable asserting a “no” in this situation because LW, as the employer, has the power to ban a person who becomes a problem/call security, etc.

        LW may be forgetting that Emma…can’t really do that. Sure, she could report Ryan as a problem (if he became one), but how many workplaces would actually care and take action to protect her? That’s not a criticism of LW, by the way, but just a general point based on the way a lot of workplaces would react (or not react).

        1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          Unfortunately LW hasn’t proved herself to be a safe employer in this case – her sympathy and support are limited and conditional. *If* Emma had said no. *If* Ryan had done something obviously creepy.

          LW could instead take it on herself to protect Emma (however slight she thinks the risk) by speaking kindly and discreetly to Ryan to clarify the situation. If he responds poorly, LW has standing to ban him, contact police, etc.

          1. HonorBox*

            The only thing is that Emma should be OK with LW talking to Ryan. It could be fine, but it also could lead to Ryan being more creepy. Emma needs to have some say in someone else stepping in on her behalf.

          2. bird*

            It’s SO frustrating when managers wait for the bad or traumatic thing to happen to the women they employ before taking any action or addressing the concern.

        2. The Shenanigans*

          Agreed. And it’s pretty much certain that Ryan would try to get her fired or worse for turning him down.

      3. Ex-prof*

        Yes, I agree.

        Also, age is a big factor. Some young women have a lot of self-confidence at what I assume to be Emma’s age. I certainly didn’t, and my observation is that that’s probably true of the majority.

        Btw, in the shadows of all this is the online incel community, where socially awkward young men are taught to view young women as prey in the singular, and as some kind of organized enemy force in the plural.

        Emma giving the client an out-and-out no might have been safer 40 years ago than it is today.

        1. Csethiro Ceredin*

          “Socially awkward young men are taught to view young women as prey in the singular, and as some kind of organized enemy force in the plural.”

          I think this is the most succinct explanation of incels I have ever seen. Thank you!

        2. datamuse*

          This right here.

          Today, I’d have absolutely no hesitation in shutting something like this down and telling the guy why. When I was Emma’s age? It would’ve been a lot harder.

      4. Robyn*

        I get where you’re coming from, but the line where LW says:

        She essentially gave Ryan signals he reasonably understood as “yes” when she really meant “no”

        *does* come across as blame-y to me.

      5. PrePostDoc*

        I find it ironic that LW insists Emma should have given clearer signals but as a default thinks the answer is for them to let Ryan know Emma has a boyfriend. LW telling a client that the instructor is unavailable because she already has a romantic partner is not a very clear signal! It essentially says “instructors are available for dates as long as they aren’t already in monogamous relationships” when the clear answer is “instructors do not have to date anyone and it is inappropriate to corner them at work and ask for phone numbers/social media”.

    2. Not my coffee*

      Let me try again.

      LW thoroughly provided their perspective and questions. Alison provided appropriate detail of rationale needed for the questions. Some of the responses to the question have been hostile.

      I think a discussion on the assumption that LW was a man would be interesting. Women have varied perspectives and experiences.

      1. Nicole Maria*

        Right, like I’m a woman but I’m not sure if I would have handled this well because I’ve never been in a situation like this (where a man is interested in me) and I can’t ever really imagine that happening, so who knows what I would have done if I were the supervisor in this case. I’d hope I would be conscientious but there might be things I would miss just because this isn’t something that is relevant to my life, personally.

      2. The Shenanigans*

        To be fair, so do men. There are several men and AMABs that I would trust on women’s issues like this far more than I would trust some women and AFABs I know.

      3. Colleen Whalen*

        OMG. Women can be just as sexist and mysoginist as men.

        I intereviewed for a job and the Hiring Manager who interviewed me was a woman. At the end of the interview she blurted out “How do I know if I hire you, that you won’t wind up getting married, pregnant and quitting your job?” She also was brazen enough to tell me “I really don’t like to hire women because I have to waste a lot of time training them, only to wind up with them quitting when they get married because they have a husband to financially support them”.

        Seriously. I would not make this up!

        Some years ago, I was being sexually harrassed by a male co-worker. The HR Director was a woman and REFUSED to do anything to stop the sexual harrassment. This was a serious problem in our organization, because this guy was also sexually harrassing several other women, concurrently. Finally, all of us sexually harrassed women pooled our financial resources together and chipped in to hire a lawyer to sue our employer. Long story short – the sexually harrassing male employe was fired with a negative reference BUT the worthless HR Director who was a woman and enabled the long time chronic sexual harrassment got to keep her job. She insisted she had done nothing wrong and we were “all just too sensitive and only after a financial out of court $$$ settlement.”

        Women can be sexist – also can engage in Reverse Sexism and have antiquated, hide bound, rigid beliefs about men which are not valid. Sexism works both ways and women can be just as sexist as a man BUT not all men are sexist.

    3. Jenn*

      I’ve run a martial arts academy and I would like to add a few things to the answer (don’t have time to read all the comments, sorry.)

      1. You need systems in place to protect your staff. They should not be running a class alone in the building, but if they do have to, I hope you have cameras and someone on call to support them.

      2. You should show up for that morning class for a few weeks even if you’re doing paperwork in the back. Your staff member feels unsafe and needs back up, and your warm and supportive presence will speak much louder than anything else.

      I realize you took her off the class instead, but unless she can replace those hours in her schedule or is paid on a salary basis, you effectively have cut her pay (or let her cut her pay) for being unsafe. That’s not okay.

      3. As stated, your staff member might not be able to say no. You do need a policy and I think you need to talk to this client specifically about it in a warm and friendly but firm way. “It’s so great to see you in class this early Ryan. Hey, it’s come to my attention that there’s been some communication with staff members outside of the studio. We really discourage that, and I’d like your help with not continuing it…hope that’s okay with you.”

      You do not make this about Emma. You make this about your studio, your code of conduct, and your policies. It is in no way about her. Her relationship status is not material.

      I have had to fire a client over something similar. It did result in a restraining order…but the way we supported the instructor in question not only made her feel supported and retained her, but other staff members still bring it up 2 years later as a reason they work for us. It’s also, in our case, a part of our values (respect and discipline.)

      I’ve also had a client threaten to punch me in the face in my studio over a Covid masking policy, and I threw him out (not physically), and I knew my employer would back me. Surprisingly, he is still a client and wrote us a great review. Sometimes being super clear and setting boundaries is a win-win, not a win-lose.

      4. In my province (Ontario) there is health and safety legislation that *requires* the employer to a) provide a harassment-free workplace and b) provide training to staff on what that means and how to deal with it. Even if yours doesn’t, providing this training, especially in our industry, is critical. If you need help with that comment on a way to get hold of me and I can share some of our material.

      You can help your staff with scripts but the biggest piece is that they report to you (which she did! yay!) and that you take action. Here, there’s just no question about it.

      5. Have a policy on external communications AND social media. Talk to your staff about the reason for the policy (protecting them and you.) It will benefit your business.

        1. Shrimp Emplaced*

          100% — it’s so informative and will be helpful to me as a client re: looking for these safeguards at similar establishments. I won’t feel safe if the employees don’t feel safe!

          I hope OP sees Jenn’s post!

      1. Carit*

        Excellent comment.

        @Alison, can you boost visibility on this? I think the first hand experience in an environment similar to the LW’s is invaluable!

      2. The Shenanigans*

        Agree this is great information. I’m a woman and would love to work somewhere like this, honestly.

        Another point on changing Emma’s classes around: it won’t work. The guy is gonna find a way to linger after class or otherwise get close to her even if he takes a group class or even if he is not in her class at all. It will seem innocent at first but it definitely won’t be.

        1. Jenn*

          Thanks everyone! I messed up the threading as I was rushing before a meeting. I’d like to mention that my organization didn’t have a management layer before I started there, and as I built up a managerial/supervisory team, we relied a lot on Managing to Change the World to inform our understanding and processes. My copy is dog-eared. So thank you Alison for helping to build that culture.

      3. Higher Ed Cube Farmer*

        Upvote Jenn’s comment.
        I’m in an office now, but I’ve been a fitness instructor, a client, and in both roles saw or received unwanted personal interactions in a work/gym setting –some that I shut down unequivocally, some that I didn’t feel able to in the moment, partly out of concern for personal safety, partly out of concern for how the business owner/manager would handle it.

        Clear policy, training and enforcement, make dealing with uncomfortable situations a lot safer, easier, and more effective for all involved.

    4. the bat in the office popcorn machine*

      I wonder about people who say this like it’s unfathomable a woman would work against, invalidate, or be callous to another woman. Sincerely challenge your own worldview if this is your first thought – the world would not be some utopia with women in charge. Look at who’s voting for what the USA and who’s benefit.

    5. jellied brains*

      When I was in my 20s, I worked at a shop that had a regular creep. My female manager found my discomfort at having to deal with him amusing.

      So not all men but also some women

    6. TRM19144*

      I’m a gay man so I no dog in this race. That said, though I don’t blame Emma in the moment, I do blame a culture where people (men and women) take no responsibility in adult interactions. While I understand why she was caught off guard, she’s a young woman not a child. Is there any doubt that giving him her number, responding to texts (even just about work), then changing classes, and dragging this all out indefinitely is way more risky than just saying no in the first place? Are men really not allowed to ask women for their number anywhere? Does this equation change had it been a guy she actually was interested in? How is he supposed to know that he’s not that guy if she doesn’t tell him (and gives him her number)? We really have to teach everyone (again, boys and girls, men and women) how to communicate clearly to avoid not only awkwardness, but potentially riskier situations.

        1. I Have RBF*


          What’s the saying: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them and/or reject them; women are afraid that men will rape and/or kill them.”

          I’m 62, AFAB, and married to another AFAB person. Please take me at my word that there is always a non-zero risk in turning a man down. You may not like to hear it, but it’s the reality of being born into a female body in our society.

      1. JB*

        Man, you did not read Alison’s answer at all, did you? There’s no amount of clear communication from women that can help them avoid “potentially riskier situations.” For that we have to change the entire system. Men who say that situations like this can be avoided by clear communication are part of the problem.

        1. Csethiro Ceredin*

          Several years ago I gave my number to someone I’d known slightly for 10+ years, saying outright that it was just friendly and I had no romantic or sexual intent. I woke up to 30 text messages overnight about leading him on and ranting about how I hadn’t wished him goodnight. It continued for weeks until I blocked him. We were both in our 40s.

          This is a mild example!

      2. different seudonym*

        Agree with others that you’re not grasping exactly how dangerous it can be for a woman to say no to a man. NOt all the time, but you never know which one will escalate to stalking or violence. Seriously. It’s a thing.

        Perhaps it would help to remember that these are **straight men** in a patriarchal society that we’re talking about?

      3. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

        For gods’ sakes–there is a huge distance between “don’t ask people for their numbers in contexts where it might be difficult for them to say no” and “you’re not allowed to ask women for their number anywhere.”

        As both Alison and some commenters have said, “clear communication” isn’t the problem. The problem is that a lot of men (no, not all men, but far too many) find it convenient to pretend that they don’t understand any “no” less blunt than “no, and never talk to me again”–and some of those men respond very badly to an explicit “no.”

        You say you have no dog in this race because you’re gay, but you said you’re a man, and seem to be identifying with men as a group. “How is he supposed to know that he’s not that guy?” Sheer statistics, if nothing else–most individual women won’t be interested in an individual man, even among women who are currently unattached and sometimes interested in men. The coffee shop and supermarket and doctor’s office and gym are not dating venues. A lot of women just want to be able to go to work in peace, and buy vegetables without someone trying to chat us up in front of the broccoli.

        1. I Have RBF*

          The coffee shop and supermarket and doctor’s office and gym are not dating venues.


          I don’t want to be propositioned any time I leave my goddamn house to run errands. It’s fucking exhausting! As an ace enby, it’s doubly so, because I’m not looking to hook up at all!

        2. coffee*

          Yeah, “I have no dog in this race” – what is this, are you saying “I don’t want to date women so I don’t have to care about their harassment”? Blathering on about blaming the culture while also being like “oh, the experiences of half the population have nothing to do with me”?

          Also, making society safer for one group of people makes it safer for everyone. It’s a rising tide lifts all boats situation.

      4. Anon in Canada*

        Ideally, women would say no upfront, and in this scenario, ideally she would have said no when he asked for her number.

        But we don’t live in an ideal world. Sometimes women feel like it’s safer to give their number on the spot, or are unable to react quickly enough to say no.

        In this case, refusing his friend requests on social media is a pretty clear way to communicate that she doesn’t want to talk to him. She should, however, stop replying to him through her personal phone number and instruct him to call or email the studio for such questions. That’s the only thing she’s doing that could be construed as “dragging it along”.

        And no, in 2023, men aren’t really “allowed” to approach stranger women, or women who work somewhere they patronize, and ask for their phone number.

      5. YetAnotherAnalyst*

        I mean, one good rule of thumb is if you’re interacting with someone (regardless of gender) whose livelihood depends on them being nice to you, you should not be making any sort of pass at them. Bare minimum, without getting into the risk for violence, etc, you’re making them risk their job to turn you down. If they’re interested in you – interested enough to risk the complications of dating and potentially breaking up with a customer – let them make the pass themselves.

        1. Anon in Canada*

          An employee who “asks out” a customer would most likely get fired if the customer complains about it.

          The customer will therefore think, “well I should make the move, since the worse that can happen to me is getting banned from one business, that’s less bad than getting fired from your job”.

          This is why so many men will put such moves on women who work at businesses they patronize… but the woman was only nice because you’re supposed to be nice to customers.

          In a customer/employee situation, there simply isn’t a good way to “begin things”, and come on, if you’re looking for dates, use a dating site. It’s the new normal now, you can’t claim that you can’t meet people any other way.

      6. Kay*

        In reading this comment I can only imagine that you have never experienced a hostile reaction to “no”, nor have you ever read/heard about all the accounts women have given on the range of reactions they received during these encounters. It is more than just “no”, it is am I safe to say no, will this jeopardize my job, will my boss or co-workers judge me – the list goes on and on and I hope you will learn more about their experiences and reconsider your stance.

        As a 40 year old who would be described as not someone to be trifled with, I have given my phone number out in these situations a total of not equal to 0 times! Further, I have also not told certain others about the situation because I didn’t want to deal with what the discussion might entail (am I being too nice, perhaps I should reconsider my very professional attire, why didn’t I just say no).

      7. Beth*

        Men are allowed to ask women for their number when they meet in social situations and see signs of mutual interest.

        Work is not a social situation. Work is a professional situation, where customer-facing employees generally have to show a certain degree of accommodation, politeness, friendliness, and welcome as part of their job. Men should not be assuming that women who professionally have to be nice to them are romantically interested.

        It’s also not hard to tell when someone is interested in knowing you better. Do they keep looking your way, do you keep catching each other’s eyes? Do they smile or blush when they see you looking? If you’ve talked to them at all, were they asking questions about you, responding with details about themselves, looking for common ground to continue the conversation? None of that is a guarantee that they’re romantically interested, of course–but it IS pretty much a guarantee that someone who’s doing none of that is NOT interested in you, and men should be looking for that before approaching a stranger. I don’t have a lot of patience for the “Men just can’t tell when they’re allowed to approach women!” nonsense.

        1. Trippedamean*

          As a blusher (anytime I feel any strong emotion, which is often) and also friend to several autistic people, I have to say that it is not always that easy to tell if someone is interested in you in the way that you’ve described.

          However, this doesn’t invalidate the rest of your comment, nor any of the other comments that say Ryan shouldn’t have asked her out.

      8. lychee tea*

        And yet again in TRM’s comment we get to see another example of a man not believing or listening to women and minimizing their experiences…Perhaps if Allison was a man he would have read her response about why it’s so dangerous and actually understood Emma’s response?

      9. The Shenanigans*

        Did you actually read the answer? Any of the comments? Hell, any news story, #metoo post, or social media at ALL for the last, oh, ever? The amount of gaslighting women endure that tells us to ignore our own instincts, that we can’t say no to the nice guy, that we have to give men a chance is just UNREAL.

        There’s also the fact it is straight-up dangerous to say no to men. Nice guys who are socially awkward are a particularly dangerous kind of predator. And I’ve never heard a man described that way who WASN’T a predator, btw. He was a client, too. He clearly felt entitled to her as a person because he was paying the gym fee. Best case, he would have tried to get her fired if she said no, and probably would have succeeded. Worst case he would (and still may try to) assault her in the parking lot or locker room.

        All you’re telling me with this comment is you aren’t safe either. Also? Just because you are gay doesn’t mean you can’t be a raging sexist. You’re repeating a lot of incel talking points here, e.g., asking are men really not allowed to as for her number? You know very well that is not what anyone is saying.

        Do some reading on women and men and dating and danger. Listen to women. And don’t speak on these issues again until you educate yourself.

      10. Dona Florinda*

        “Are men really not allowed to ask women for their number anywhere?”

        If said woman is working, then no. As pointed out by Alison, it puts the woman on the risk of losing her job either way (some companies do forbid this sort if interaction, even if both parties are interested in each other), and especially if she says no.

        “Is there any doubt that giving him her number, responding to texts (even just about work), then changing classes, and dragging this all out indefinitely is way more risky than just saying no in the first place?”

        When turning down men in public places, I’ve been: called things I’ll not write here, pushed against a wall, and spat on, just to name a few. And these were public interactions with other people around, not a one on one fitness session at a quasi-empty gym. So again, the answer is no.

      11. GrooveBat*

        The whole “Oh, no, I can’t ask someone for their number anymore!” complaint is just…bizarre to me.

        The worst thing that can happen to someone who can’t ask someone for their number is…they don’t get to go on a date? Whereas the worst thing that can happen to someone who refuses to give out their number is…they can get stalked, assaulted, and/or murdered.

      12. Observer*

        . Is there any doubt that giving him her number, responding to texts (even just about work), then changing classes, and dragging this all out indefinitely is way more risky than just saying no in the first place

        There is *absolutely* doubt.

        Are men really not allowed to ask women for their number anywhere?

        This is not “anywhere”, it’s at the woman’s workplace where the asker is a customer. That’s a well known power imbalance.

        How is he supposed to know that he’s not that guy if she doesn’t tell him

        He should have known not to ask. But having gotten her number, it doesn’t take someone with a high level of social skill to understand that someone who is not responding to your social messages does NOT want to be social with you! I’m sorry, I’m tired of acting as though an adult guy who is competent to manage his life really and truly is so witless in thie ONE way, that he can’t understand that. And it’s an argument that doesn’t generally get made in good faith.

      13. Distracted Librarian*

        You’re already getting reamed, but in this case, I think a pile-on is justified. This has nothing to do with her maturity. 3 factors are at play here, in ascending order of importance:

        1. Women are socialized to be nice, to go along, to not be confrontational. That’s changing (I hope), but it hasn’t gone away yet, and that socialization goes bone-deep.

        2. In service jobs, a customer complaint can have serious repercussions. You make nice to keep your job.

        3. Telling a man no can be dangerous and even deadly, and she was alone with him. Sure, most men will take the no, maybe not with grace, but also not with fisticuffs. But you have absolutely no way to know beforehand.

        Almost every woman has a scary story about a man. Most of us have several. Some of us have many.

      14. pandop*

        Just yesterday a 15 year old girl was murdered, seemingly (ie motive not proved in court etc etc) for rejecting a boy, here in the UK (Croydon). *That’s* what the risks in ‘just saying no’ are.

        As the Margaret Atwood quote sums it up:

        “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

      15. ClaireW*

        A 15 year old girl was killed in London yesterday for “just saying no” to a teenage boy on her way to school. Literally you have no idea, how dare you dismiss womens’ lived experienced and actual physical safety just becayse you’ve decided that people need to ‘take more responsibility’, this is an extremely naive and unrealistic perspective in a world where women are literally killed at a non-zero rate for saying no to men.

      16. frustratedTrainee*

        Yes there’s plenty of doubt! Women get killed over saying no. And sometimes what a woman is doing by giving out her number when she’d rather not is a *trauma response* to previous interactions she’s had with men where she’s said no and she figures this is her safest option. Why are you reducing that to childishness?

  1. True Faux*

    “I as her employer have been inserted into what should have been handled between two young adults as an interpersonal issue. ”

    Emma is your employee, and Ryan is your client. They met at your workplace, and they only met due to their employment/patronage of your workplace. This is a workplace issue, not an interpersonal issue.

    1. Don't Send Your Kids to Hudson University*

      Something the letter writer might be able to do more broadly when training or onboarding new instructors is to provide them with some training and options for how to handle situations like these. She should not require that the employee respond with a direct “no,” in all situations, but make clear that she will support anyone who does, while also exploring other scripts and options for de-escalating this types of encounters or finding safe exits, like pointing to a broad employment policy that prevents instructors from socializing with students/clients or other scripts to have at the ready to end an interaction like that one.

      1. NewJobNewGal*

        Absolutely agree! There are workplaces where clients hitting on staff is going to happen, gyms, salons, spas, bars…all those places should be aware that client are going to corner staff and staff should know what they can do and how the boss will support them.
        When I worked at a spa, we went over how we could say ‘no’, how we could quote policy if we needed, and how the boss would back up if a client persisted.

        1. bighairnoheart*

          Exactly. OP, this kind of thing is so so common for women who work in fields like yours. It’s in the best interests of you, your employees, and your clients, to create policies so your staff have something that doesn’t feel personal to point to when something like this inevitably comes up again. I’d bet so much money that if Emma knew she could safely say, “Oh, sorry I can’t give my number to clients. Corporate policy!” and also knew that you’d get involved and back her up if Ryan escalated, she would do that!

        2. sparkle emoji*

          Yes, being able to point to a policy could be helpful. Then it’s not Emma that’s refusing Ryan, it’s just an impersonal rule.

        3. Media Monkey*

          absolutely! As a parent, my teenage daughter knows that she can use me and my husband as a “out” and time she feels uncomfortable or just plain doesn’t want to do something. in borrowing the authority of “my parents won’t let me/ my parents have plans/ my parents can’t give me a lift” it’s pretty much unarguable for any pushy person. as Emma’s boss, she should be able rely on you to do the same. “my boss doesn’t allow us to give out our numbers/ date clients/ socialise with clients outside the gym” would have shut this down knowing you support her as it sounds like you do!

      2. Smithy*

        Yes – I also think that if there’s not going to be a policy that prevents instructors from socializing, I think it’s even more important to provide that list of options of ways to give deescalating no’s.

        As a gym, since many instructors may have other lines of work or invite their personal friends/family to take fitness classes – it may truly not make sense to have a hard line like that. Because if its a policy on the books, but known to not be regularly observed, someone may not feel the policy actually gives them the kind out they’re looking for if they are fearing a “well actually, Jack and Jill….”

        All to say, working with scripts for staff who might be in close quarters and looking to deescalate based on the specifics of the gym and of the reality of instructors would be helpful. Because a future Ryan might have been asking to stay in touch about whether or not early morning classes would still continue with just one attendee and to let him know if the class might be taken over by another instructor he likes less. And one person is fine with that, another isn’t – and scripts to help deflect that can only improve customer service and help staff feel as best trained as possible.

        1. S*

          Heck, you could even tell the employees they’re free to SAY there’s a policy against socializing, while also making clear it’s not a real policy/not strictly enforced if they do ever want to make friends with a client.

          1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

            While I agree that firmly enforcing the boundary doesn’t feel like the right solution, I think that having at least a nominal policy could be valuable on both sides — if I’m a client at a gym, I don’t necessarily want to be pursued by an instructor, either. (And as a client, I might say something, or I might just take my business to the slightly-less-convenient gym a mile away.)

      3. Anonys*

        +100 to not actually forbidding socialization between instructors and clients. It’s not realistic in that industry and I am suprised to see some people in the comments calling for such a policy (fully on board with Alison’s suggestion that trainers should be allowed to tell clients such a policy exists as a safety net though).

        I know someone who teaches fitness classes and she has made friends with several of the people of who regularly come to her classes (also girls as far as I am aware) and I don’t think there is any harm in it.

        In fact, what I think is most tricky about the situation with Ryan is actually that he HASN’T directly asked Emma out. It seems that he has texted her (about the fitness studio and other unrelated stuff), but it’s quite likely none of it was explicitly romantic (ofc it’s still obvious). As a woman myself, if someone asks me out on a date directly (and politely), I can politely and directly decline. But in a situation like this, because the guy isn’t being direct/has plausible deniability, I worry that if I just come out and say: “Sorry, not interested”, first of all there isn’t really a natural opportunity to say that and also I worry that the guy will respond “what? I was just being social and friendly why would you think I was hitting on you” (even if they most likely were).

        I also fully understand why Emma would have given out her number. I mean, I have my favorite fitness instructor’s number. We don’t text socially, but I come to almost all his classes. I don’t like the substitutes so he kindly lets me know if he not doing a class or teaching at a different studio and stuff like that. So I think for the fitness industry it’s just impossible to make hard and fast rules like “dont socialize, dont give out your number”. That makes it even more important to teach young instructors how to handle these situations (and also perhaps teach instructors themselves not to hit on the clients)

        1. LabRat*

          “But in a situation like this, because the guy isn’t being direct/has plausible deniability, I worry that if I just come out and say: “Sorry, not interested”, first of all there isn’t really a natural opportunity to say that and also I worry that the guy will respond “what? I was just being social and friendly why would you think I was hitting on you” (even if they most likely were).”

          The great thing is then you can just say “Oh good! Then we don’t have anything to worry about.”

          1. KiwiBird*

            But if Emma does not want Ryan to contact her *at all* then this response won’t help that, as Ryan will just continue to say he’s just being social and friendly.

            1. Anonys*

              A bit off topic, as the situation here is clearly guy hitting on girl, but I personally feel like unwanted social/friendly advances are in some ways harder to navigate than unwanted (explicitly) romantic ones.

              I feel like there is at least a socially understood script for saying, pretty directly (how easy it is to employ, especially for woman, is another thing). : “Hey, I don’t like you that way/I am not interested/I am not available”

              Saying directly : “sorry, I’m not really interested in being friends with you/I don’t want to socialize with you/I don’t want to hang out with you outside of work” – not really done or socially acceptable. You just plead being busy/stay non-committal, etc. And a lot of people when making friends as an adult genuinely are busy!

            2. coffeespoons*

              Yes–I’ve had this happen many times. Several have been men who I met at work, when I was in a very public-facing food service job. When I dropped the classic “oh, I have a boyfriend” (not actually a lie at the time, though, as many have mentioned here upthread, it absolutely SHOULD NOT MATTER), they backpedaled to the “oh, I wasn’t FLIRTING with you–I was just complimenting your hair and your eyes and asking you to get drinks with me AS A FRIEND, I totally have a girlfriend already; whyever would you think I was HITTING ON YOU”. He then continued to pursue me, flirt with me, try to get me to go have drinks with him, and then, every once in a while, usually after saying something that was a little more risque than usual, make reference to his girlfriend. I’m more than a little skeptical about the existence of said girlfriend, but whether she was real or not is beside the point. The point is that there are a lot of people who will use those shreds of plausible deniability to continue to insert themselves into your life.

      4. Sage*

        This so much. You let your employees know that you have their back, which unfortunately doesn’t always happen, plus you give them an excuse to prevent conflict, in case the customer is unreasonable.

      5. Jaydee*

        Honestly, I’d have a policy for the gym *members* rather than the employees (or have it for both) and put it in the membership agreement that the gym can bar the member from classes or services or can terminate the membership entirely if the member engages in unwanted conduct toward gym staff or other members.

    2. Antilles*

      And also, most of their interactions appear to be at the studio. This is a workplace issue, first and foremost.

      1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

        Which could also mean it may escalate into Sexual Harrasment territory. I don’t think it (quite) rises to this level yet, but it’s skirting the line.

    3. RabbitRabbit*

      And LW’s employees deserve to have strong, clear support of their employer in dealing with issues that center around sexual harassment. People stuck in customer-facing jobs often feel trapped into being people-pleasers and not do anything that might get them attacked/insulted/etc. but also could get their employer bad reviews. You need to make it clear that you will support your employees in feeling and being safe.

      At an old job (private medical office), the techs (all women) had at least one “dirty old man” patient who would “accidentally” brush up against their bodies during an exam with his hand/arm, using very plausible-deniability methods. The techs were reduced to having to go into the exam room in pairs which would stop his roving hands. But I always wondered – were they too nervous to bring this up with their bosses? Was the patient extremely wealthy/well-connected that maybe this was difficult to risk causing problems? Or maybe they had told someone and been told to use the buddy system because wealthy patient/doctor didn’t believe them/dismissal of it being that bad/worry about laws around discharging a patient from your practice/etc.?

      1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

        Even if you know your manager will back you up, it’s still difficult to switch modes and go from “make the customer happy” to “shut this down firmly and politely.” Especially if saying no to customers isn’t typically a part of your job. Especially if you’re new in your career. Especially if you’re female-socialized. You can get stuck in “being polite” and can’t make your brain work fast enough to figure out how to say no. Even knowing you can say no, knowing HOW to say no, in the moment, can be really hard, and you can wind up saying yes because that’s easier, and then kicking yourself about it later.

        1. Csethiro Ceredin*

          Exactly this. It’s not even all internal pressure, there is social pressure coming from popular culture and often your own circle to be nice or “give him a chance” and it’s hard to shake all that.

        2. RabbitRabbit*

          Absolutely. But I think that if the LW makes it clear to staff that they will be backed up in fending off clients who are looking for dates, it will be easier to stop it earlier and/or more directly.

    4. Beth*

      This!!! OP, you’re really wanting to view this as an interpersonal issue that Emma should solve, and it’s just not. Emma is at work. Emma should be able to expect that her interactions at work are professional–all the time, with no “but this client is a single man your age who thinks you’re attractive” exception.

      And while you told her you’d ban him if he was too persistent, he is now being too persistent and you are not banning him, so….honestly I’m feeling like her risk analysis was actually pretty spot on here. She’s uncomfortable enough that she gave up a class–gave up income!–to avoid even potentially being alone with him, and your response is to say she should be handling it herself? It really looks like you’re currently only willing to back your employees up if you see behavior that makes YOU uncomfortable–making THEM uncomfortable isn’t necessarily enough to qualify for intervention. You should think on that.

      1. Elaine Benes*

        This is exactly what I came here to say, this is NOT an interpersonal issue! OP, I know you think you are being supportive of your staff but you actually are not, in a lot of crucial ways. Please re-frame how you’re viewing this staff sexual harassment issue in your mind, and consider implementing some of the good policy suggestions in the comments.

      2. Satan’s Panties*

        Yeah, that’s the mindset that for years dismissed date/acquaintance rape, on the grounds that “You probably led him on; you should have given him a firm no.” LW has a responsibility to her employee, to keep her safe at work.


      I have a lot of really, really Big Feelings around calling it an interpersonal issue instead of a workplace issue, to the point that all of the comments I’ve tried to write are not helpful to anyone.

    6. Lacey*

      Yes. I was coming here to say that. At no point was this interaction merely an interpersonal issue.

      LW needs to have a policy in place that her employees can site when they need to turn someone down.

    7. Pigeon*

      Absolutely this. Also, Ryan is a client. Emma also has to weigh the concern that she could be be viewed as driving away clients and her employment status damaged.

    8. Falling Diphthong*

      As soon as Ryan decided to make his approach when Emma was at work and constrained to be polite and smiling and encouraging to him as a client, OP as someone with authority at work was inserted. Ryan did the inserting, OP.

      And the expectation that Emma should just handle this on her own does not speak to an environment where Emma would feel confident that OP would have her back if she turned Ryan down and he didn’t take it well.

      It sounds like they were alone in the area, and possibly the building, at the time he made his approach.

      1. sparkle emoji*

        Yeah that seems to be the case. Depending on the class, maybe a closed room? It doesn’t even seem cost-effective to run a full class(not private fitness coaching) for one.

    9. SereneScientist*

      Yeah, I think you’ve nailed the thing that’s bugging me about this letter. There’s a little bit of a victim-blaming tone as if this is somehow a completely separate incident instigated by her employee, but that’s really just not the case at all.

      1. My Boss is Dumber than Yours*

        There’s a lot more than a little victim blaming. Honestly, the letter reads very much as OP seeing Emma as the problem, with Ryan just another customer to be served.

    10. Jessica*


      I had to stop reading when I hit that line.

      When you put someone in a position where they are required to try to keep clients happy in order to have a job, and you essentially trap them with those clients, you have a responsibility to protect them.

      1. Lexi Lynn*

        It would have been less of a situation if he had asked when other people were around, but asked when she was most vulnerable.

        n the past, I would have given him an out because he could be shy and alone is less stressful, but I think men need to step it up and start showing some emotional intelligence.

        1. sparkle emoji*

          I would argue that asking when they are completely alone shows emotional intelligence, but it’s being used for evil.

    11. Stoney Lonesome*

      I used to be a manager at a place where we had a lot of interaction with the general public. Most of the people in my department were fresh out of college. We literally had department policies on how to address unwanted romantic attention from guests. One policy was that employees “were not allowed” to give their phone numbers to guests. It gave employees an easy out.

      We also had a code phrase that employees could use to summon a manager without the problem guest knowing what was happening. I think its just kind of the job when you are working with the general public, especially is the employees are young and female, that you have to protect your employees from unwanted attention in a way that allows clients or guests to save face.

    12. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I don’t want to pile onto OP, but I do want to say that a/he should learn to narrow the definition of “interpersonal issues.”
      I thinking of things like bullying, harassment, or some other mistreatment.
      I have no reason to assume from the letter that OP would categorize employee Mary saying employee Betty criticizes her clothes or makes jokes about her training routine as “an interpersonal issue” or “personality clash.”
      I simply think that “how hands off should I be regarding incidents between two young people” is something to thing about.

  2. RagingADHD*

    OP, I think it is worthwhile going back to Emma to follow up that if she has any further issues with Ryan — any problem at all — does she want you to handle it, or would she rather handle it herself? Let her know that you have her back and will support her.

    Even if Ryan doesn’t do anything you consider to be a bannable offense, she may want you to step in. Or she may not.

    And don’t tell him she has a boyfriend. That’s irrelevant. It would be inappropriate for him to pursue this further, even if she were single. It is not okay for patrons to hit on your employees and make them feel uncomfortable while they are at work. That’s the message Ryan needs to hear, if he persists. It’s a gym, not Tinder. Emma isn’t there to get dates, she’s working.

    1. Felicia*

      This is a two pronged-issue. How do you shut down Ryan’s interest/pursuit of her, and how do you foster a culture where this doesn’t become an issue. I think the boyfriend provides a useful tool in addressing the first problem. She should make it known she has a boyfriend. It doesn’t need to be told to him directly or framed as “she can’t date you because she has a boyfriend,” but I think finding a way to casually mention it in his presence could shut things down (ie, tell her class about the funny thing that happened to her and the bf that weekend.)

      1. ENFP in Texas*

        It’s none of his business if she has a boyfriend or not. If she were single, would it be okay for him to pursue her? No. Her relationship status is irrelevant and should not be used as an excuse.

        1. Cinnamon Hair*

          Agree. I honestly think the fact that she has a boyfriend is completely irrelevant. She’s not interested, plain and simple. Her relationship status doesn’t matter.

          1. Gerri’s Jaunty Hat*

            Philosophically, we all know that’s true. Practically, the boyfriend provides an easier and less fraught out for her that it’s not unfeminist to take advantage of. She doesn’t owe womankind a perfect textbook rebuttal to being hit on.

            1. Be Gneiss*

              Again, that’s Emma’s prerogative if she wants to use it as an out. The LW should not be using the boyfriend as an excuse on Emma’s behalf.

            2. sparkle emoji*

              But if the next employee who gets hit on at LW’s gym while giving a private class is single, what does she do? The better option would be to give the employees a policy they can point to, so LW and the gym are the bad guys. Don’t make employees lie about boyfriends to ward off unwelcome advances from clients.

          2. Falling Diphthong*

            Perhaps OP could offer to give Ryan weekly updates on Emma’s boyfriend status, and whether things look like they might be heading for a breakup and he should try again now?

            (The above is sarcasm. If it sounds unreasonable to you–that’s why Emma having to brandish a boyfriend, real or imaginary, to be left alone is not the answer.)

          3. Hannah Lee*

            using ‘she has a boyfriend’ as the reason why he needs to back off only adds to the sense that Emma (and all women) are just things that are subject to the whims of whatever man comes their way, with no personal autonomy.

            In the meantime, it’s no guarantee that Ryan, or any man, will back off their pursuit of a woman. Some men view that as amping up the game, to see if they can win against some man they’ve never met. Or they will just continue hounding the woman

            Emma is OP’s employee. Just by being a human being, she’s entitled to not being harassed at the workplace, and to not have work clients sliding into her DMs. And because this is OP’s company or one she’s managing, it is on her now to ensure that’s the case. @Jenn upthread who runs a martial arts academy has a great outline of the steps OP should be taking, not just RE Emma or Ryan, but generally for the safety and well-being of ALL her employees and clients.

            1. GrooveBat*

              **she’s entitled to not being harassed at the workplace, and to not have work clients sliding into her DMs.**

              Called this out because this, right here, is the crux of the issue. People saying she should invent a boyfriend are completely glossing over how inappropriate and wrong it is for this to even be happening in the first place.

        2. Spero*

          Agree. Right now, Emma has said she does not want to discuss anything personal with Ryan. That’s a clear and appropriate boundary. When he brings up personal questions she has declined to answer and only discussed the studio. If her employer tells her to disclose the boyfriend OR the employer discloses the boyfriend, both of these things are breaking Emma’s separation of church and state type boundary. It’s not a sure fire strategy to stop Ryan and it is itself breaking her boundary, so that’s an absolute no go. If Emma was happily sharing all about her kids and dogs and sister and funny childhood story then MAYBE it would be ok to suggest a boyfriend story, but a professional talk only boundary is NOT a bad thing for Emma to have.

      2. mlem*

        Doubling down on the idea that the only way to shut down Ryan’s pursuit is to tell him that another *man* has already staked a claim on Emma is gross. (And it doesn’t even work! Some guys see that as reason to step up their pursuit!) Emma should not be advised to do this.

        1. Jiminy Cricket*

          Ohmygod, flashbacks to my 20s and gross men telling me everything that was wrong with my then-boyfriend and the life I wanted (and have now built!) with him.

          No. We are done using “I’m taken” as a deflector.

          1. Nicole Maria*

            It depends on who is doing the “taking” – I only date women and while I rarely have men interested in me, on those few occasions that it has happened I’ve found that saying I have a girlfriend or wife is a pretty solid deterrent. But I agree that someone shouldn’t have to even say that.

            1. badger*

              “but you’ve obviously never been with a REAL man, that’s why you don’t date men, let me show you what you’re missing”

              yep, got that one once (I do date men, but used the GF I had at the time as an excuse and regretted it after that comment)

              1. Nicole Maria*

                We’re pretty far off topic here but that’s not something that would happen to me, thankfully! I feel like men are more likely to be relieved that I’m a lesbian, but that’s all I’ll say on that.

      3. Emikyu*

        I completely disagree with this.

        Sure, some guys will back off when they hear about a boyfriend, but plenty won’t. They’ll either assume she’s lying about having a boyfriend, or that they convince her to break up with him, or all sorts of things.

        Speaking of breaking up, what if that happens? Using the boyfriend as an excuse sends the message that there’s at least some possibility that Emma would date Ryan if she were single. Suppose Emma and her boyfriend break up and Ryan somehow gets wind of it – what then?

        This needs to be shut down because Ryan’s behavior is inappropriate regardless of Emma’s relationship status.

        1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

          There’s a great early 90s rap song “I Got a Man”. She keeps telling this guy hitting on her that she has a man, and he replies “what’s your man got to do with me?” When she says it again, he says “I ain’t tryin to hear that”.

          1. Fives*

            OMG, I was a teenager when that came out and hadn’t heard it or even thought of it since then. At the time, I totally didn’t understand what it was saying. I’m going to find it and give it a listen as an adult woman.

            1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

              Make sure you watch the video! He annoys various women and doesn’t take no for an answer. (Until the point where she says her man takes her out, and he’s like nah I don’t do that.)

          2. Michelle Smith*

            And there are so, so many songs about this. What’s being described is a very common problem in our culture. 2016’s Treat You Better was the first one that came to my mind.

        2. Anne Shirley*

          100%. Some guys will interpret this as “If I didn’t have a boyfriend, I would be available to you” and will go so far as to “check in” to see if the relationship status has changed. The toxic pick-up-artist community even has scripts (!) on how to respond to women who say they have boyfriends by challenging the statement–even asking “where is he?” I have friends who have been on the receiving end of this, unfortunately.

      4. SomeWords*

        I have to agree with Raging ADHD on the point about mentioning a boyfriend. It puts the onus squarely on the shoulders of the harassed person to present (or invent) external reasons why someone should stop hitting on them. Anything that implies “My boyfriend wouldn’t like it” perpetuates the idea that it’s up to another man whether or not a woman is available.

        Because she doesn’t welcome the attention is reason enough.

      5. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

        I have to disagree with some of the comments above this — if Ryan is a decent person, “this happened to my bf and me this weekend” can be a useful face saving move to say “I’m not interested in you in that way” without having to say it.

          1. Falling Diphthong*

            Like, if you corner someone at work when she’s alone and she gives you her number, but then she doesn’t respond to any of your overtures, that means she wasn’t interested in you like that.

            That may be a soft no, but it’s an incredibly clear one and can be spelled out for the socially awkward, after which they should pay attention when it happens. Also true for people who don’t want to be closer friends with you–if you ask three times and they are always busy, you drop it. They know where to find you and that you previously had an interest in hanging out, if they want to follow up because they actually really were always busy.

        1. Red5*

          Making an assumption that Ryan is a decent person can be the thing that gets her harmed. Also, whether it was something in her past or something in the interaction with Ryan, we have to believe that, based on her response, Emma has done the calculation and felt she would not be safe making the assumption that Ryan is a decent person. I get the desire to “not all men” this, but not all 14th century rats either, and look at how that turned out.

      6. umami*

        I would lean against the boyfriend advice. I wouldn’t ever advise someone that they need to share personal information in order to shut down this type of behavior, because it’s irrelevant and can lead to extended contact instead – some men will see that as information to overcome or push back on. If the goal is to stop contact, inviting more contact by sharing more information probably won’t be helpful.

      7. RagingADHD*

        That may be a valid choice for Emma to make if she wants to. It is none of OP’s business, and not OP’s place to say anything about.

        OP’s position is that this is work. Not a club or a party.

        1. F as in Frank*

          completely agree. Emma can share her relationship status as she sees fit; it is not relevant to the LW and should not be used as a tool *by LW*

      8. House On The Rock*

        It is absolutely wild to me that in late 2023 we are still advocating the use of “I have a boyfriend”. Many moons ago, from puberty on, I found even if used, it’s a not remotely reliable deterrent, nor does it help in the big scheme of things to say “sorry, I belong to someone else” for so many reasons! Emma gets to say “no” as a complete sentence abd OP should be unequivocally supporting that.

        1. GrooveBat*

          I know, right? And that people are endorsing it as “useful”! It’s mind boggling that anyone would suggest this.

        2. Laser99*

          I used to say “I’m afraid I’m spoken for” and smile. It worked better than “I have a boyfriend” although I don’t understand why.

      9. Molly Millions*

        I think this would be counter-productive, considering she’s trying to set a boundary around her personal life. If this guy isn’t as harmless as LW assumes, giving him information about what she does in her private life could backfire in a number of ways. Some creeps take personal disclosures, even innocuous ones, as signs that you’re secretly into them.

      10. GrooveBat*

        No. The “boyfriend” is not a useful tool because there is no boyfriend.

        It is flat-out inappropriate for a client to hit on an employee, whether they are single, attached, married, engaged, or whatever. THAT is the message that needs to be sent and Emma’s personal relationships/life do not enter into the equation, period.

        Please stop giving oxygen to this strategy because it sidesteps the inappropriateness of this entire situation.

    2. ENFP in Texas*

      “And don’t tell him she has a boyfriend. That’s irrelevant.”

      This. It’s none of his damned business, and a single woman is entitled to not be harassed/pursued by someone she’s not interested in without the reason being “she belongs to someone else, so back off”.

      1. umami*

        OP, I would also suggest you come up with a better policy for handling classes when only one person shows up, especially if it’s an early morning/late evening class that can carry other potential dangers when no one else is around. I am hoping that there are still other staff present so that no one is ever truly alone in this type of situation.

  3. Punk*

    There’s also an element that’s hard to talk about: if Ryan is neurodivergent or just otherwise socially awkward, he might not read the situation or subtle rejection clearly, and if Emma is picking up on this, it’s just one more thing Emma is factoring in. It’s the impossible intersectionality of a scared woman who doesn’t want to potentially offend someone who seems neurodivergent and a (possibly) neurodivergent male who isn’t recognizing the woman’s fear response, because he already doesn’t realize the awkwardness of continually texting his one-on-one personal trainer.

    And even now I feel caught in the bind of not wanting to offend, but also being sick of women not being able to voice their safety concerns because of murky situations like this.

    1. Kel*

      There is a difference between Emma saying she’s not interested and Ryan being offended. He shouldn’t be offended by a rejection.

    2. Elizabeth*

      9 minutes to “he might be missing social cues “. Being socially awkward doesn’t excuse cornering someone in their place of employment and insisting that they should give over personal information. Do. Better.

      1. Tinkerbell*

        I didn’t read Punk’s comment as excusing anything based on his neurodivergence, just an acknowledgement that this is probably part of Emma’s calculus and it’s unfortunate that women have to include it as a mitigating factor.

      2. DramaQ*

        I agree. I am ADHD myself and it is concerning and terrifying to me that being neurodivergent is starting to be used as an excuse to not bother to learn social norms and that people like Emma need to be “mindful” that when receiving unwanted attention that he “doesn’t know any better” and it’s up to us women to gently educate these men. No it’s not. They should have learned that from their parents, teachers, etc. Being neurodivergent does not excuse you from learning proper social conduct. It is never acceptable to corner a woman in private and insist she give you her number. It is never acceptable to say “Well she wasn’t firm enough in saying no” and therefore he’s allowed to continue his behavior. No means NO even if it’s a “wishy washy” one in your opinion. It’s not Emma’s job to beat him over the head with it. Her manager should be addressing attempts to fraternize with his/her staff and say it isn’t allowed.

      3. ferrina*

        Ryan may not actually know that he shouldn’t do this. Lots of media portrays asking out service people as acceptable practice. If Ryan knows but thinks he’s an exception, that’s not okay. Either way, we have no way of knowing what Ryan does/doesn’t know. But OP can take away this variable by directly informing Ryan what the expectation is (both in terms of this studio, and in a tone for “seriously, just don’t do this”)

        OP, you have standing to pull Ryan aside and tell him that you’ve become aware of interactions where he asked Emma for her phone number. You can tell him that you expressly ask that clients not do this, as it puts your employees in an awkward position. As Emma’s boss and someone that has power in this studio, you have the standing to set the standard and express what is and is not okay behavior in this workplace (whether the behavior comes from employees or clients)

      4. jasmine*

        LW also implied the same thing when he said Ryan’s socially awkward in their letter.

        Like… why is Ryan’s ability to take social cues relevant here. It doesn’t affect what OP should do. Why jump to defend Ryan when no one has even accused him of anything?

      5. Punk*

        Uhhh…you’re missing my cues here, interestingly. I’m saying that I think Ryan’s difference/disability isn’t a reason to excuse his behavior, even though lots of men like him think they deserve extra chances to experiment on real women, which is just one more reason why Emma might not be willing to give a hard No.

        I understand the desire to make a good mic drop but you misinterpreted me pretty wildly here.

      6. Green great dragon*

        I totally agree Ryan shouldn’t have asked for her number. But ‘cornering someone’ and ‘insisting’ does not appear to be what happened here (in fact, LW specified he had never been threatening or disrespectful’).

        I don’t think it’s helpful to LW to confuse the two, since the advice would be very different (‘cornering and threatening’ should mean Ryan never sets foot on the premises again).

    3. Anna*

      He doesn’t have to be neurodivergent, and barely awkward, just unaware (like the LW). He asked her number, and she gave it — he asked and he got a yes. We all learn that no means no, but now he’s supposed to realise that in this case, ‘yes’ can mean ‘yes’, but also ‘no’ or ‘maybe’. Even a reasonable, well-meaning person can have missed that.

      And it sucks for Emma, and I sympathise. I hope the situation can be resolved without further damage to her schedule and well-being.

      1. RabbitRabbit*

        Except she’s only responding to fitness questions and not the social stuff. And she didn’t add him back on social media. So that’s a “yes I will discuss fitness” and not a “oh wow, maybe I will date you!” cue.

      2. Former Young Lady*

        My unpopular opinion: a reasonable, well-meaning person will not hit on people at their place of work, because it puts the person on the spot.

        Why do we carve out so much benefit of the doubt for dudes who don’t respect normal boundaries? It does them no favor to mollycoddle them this way.

    4. Siege*

      The best way out of that bind is to stop giving men a pass because of a possible diagnosis you have no knowledge of, nor any way to infer. I do not consider LW’s second-hand words (that also prioritize her male client’s actions at her female employee’s expense) sufficient to suggest that Ryan is doing any more than being so arrogant he doesn’t have to listen to Emma’s cues.

      LW, you should consider that you are empowering Ryan’s wants over your employee’s safety, particularly by claiming that they need to work it out. You should probably look up how many women have been murdered this year alone for saying no to a man’s unwanted advances. I hope you either actually step up your support for Emma by intervening much more firmly between your client and her or she finds a new job. She’s not required to be so concerned about her safety she’s had to change her work schedule.

    5. D*

      she isn’t and has never been his personal trainer, and it’s extremely weird to imply that a neurodivergent person is going to inherently be creepier than a neurotypical person. “don’t hit on women while they’re at work, especially when that work is providing a service” isn’t a social cue as much as it is a straight up stated rule that people talk about frequently. you don’t “miss” that “social cue”, you intentionally decide that rule doesn’t apply to your situation for whatever reason.

    6. Gerry Keay*

      As has been said many times on this site, Schrödinger’s Neurodivergence is damaging to neurodivergent people. It serves to sytgmatize by constantly implying that harming others/crossing boundaries is inherent to neurodivergence, which it is not.

    7. ecnaseener*

      What does it matter if he is? The LW’s actions are the same – if Emma wants LW to tell him to back off, tell him clearly not to approach Emma or any other staff socially. Now he knows, and he can be held to it going forward.

  4. badger*

    to make the point Alison is making more clear: she was alone with him one and one. You would have banned if he did anything “inappropriate” but crucially, that is *after the fact*. He could have done any number of things, from being horribly unkind to trying to kill her, and she was doing what all women do, which is 4d chess calculus all the time to avoid the potentially fatal effects of upsetting a man.

    1. cardigarden*

      One of those 4d chess calculus factors being that Emma doesn’t know in real time whether or not this client is one of those guys (we had someone notorious for this back in college) who immediately call the number to make sure you didn’t give him the Rejection Hotline and get scary if he proved you did.

      1. HospitalDPT*

        She also had not definitive way of knowing if her employer would back her up. So in addition to snap decisions about physical safety, there is the unknown financial factor of “if I refuse and he complains, then what?” Does she get reprimanded? Written Up? Fired? Taken off the schedule? Even in places where I very much felt that my employer WOULD have my back in a professional environment, when it comes to setting clear and firm boundaries in the workplace it unfortunately doesn’t take much to get saddled with blame through the lens of hindsight all in the name of “customer service”.

        1. pally*

          Yep! For me, I’d worry that the boss will be “displeased” if turning down a client results in the loss of a customer. So I’d be nice at all costs. And that isn’t good. Hence, I’m not in any way a part of customer service.

          Wish bosses would include a pre-emptive clause in the employee manual that assures the employees that they are allowed to turn down any and all non-professional requests from clients. No repercussions.

          1. Colleen Whalen*

            Heck, if an employer thinks their staff MUST go out on dates with clients to keep them happy customers then the employer has now become a pimp and prostitution is part of the employees job description! Nobody should be pressured to socialize with clients out of the workplace, after hours in order to keep a client “happy”. This is a business, providing merchandise or legitimate professional services in exchange for client payment – not Tinder hookups!

            Many years ago on a job interview to be an Administrative Assistant the company owner told me part of my job description was to go out to dinner with clients! I thought this was VERY odd, since what the help wanted ad in the newspaper stated was for an Administrative Assistant to perform word processing, reception, answer incoming calls, take messages, order office supplies, filing, etc. A kind of wierd, red flag was this employer told me over the phone that the interview was going to take place in the bar of the Four Seasons hotel in our city. I was about 35 at that time and NEVER had a job interview in a bar. I asked the employer why the interview was not going to take place in his corporate office and he told me that he wanted a “real life” setting to see what my social skills were in a bar/restaurant setting – such as table manners, not chewing food with an open mouth, not having more than one alcoholic drink, etc. It sounded more or less kind of reasonable, but then 15 minutes into the interview I got a very clear impression this job was going to entail far more than just Administrative Assistant duties. The going out to dinner with clients part of the job – is what euphamistically was what the boss called “entertaining and keeping the clients happy”. Why on earth would high ranking executives who were clients have any remote interest in going out to dinner with the secretary of the vendor they were doing business with? This was not a high ranking Executive Assistant type of job – it was secretarial Administrative Assistant job.
            I figured it out……..”entertaining and keeping the clients happy” was really just a euphamism for the Administrative Assistant having to provide sexual services to the clients as part of services rendered. Needless to say, I immediately walked out of that job interview!

            About a month later, I got a call from this so-called employer – he actually OFFERED ME THE JOB. I was really stunned, since I walked out of the job interview at the 4 Seasons Hotel bar. I felt I made it clear I had no interest in this incredibly wierd, dubious job. The hiring manager told me he really wanted to hire me – but that I had to start immediately and he could not wait for me to give 2 weeks notice to my current employer. I told this fellow he could easily call a temp agency to fill in for two weeks, while I completed my own two weeks notice – he said that is “impossible because you must start tomorrow”.

            It all sounded very “fishy”. I would have permanently burned my reference with my current employer if I quit that day, cleaned out my desk and did not fulfill two weeks notice to give time to hire my replacement. I think that is exactly what this so-called employer who conducted his job interviews for Administrative Assistants in a BAR – what he really wanted was fairly duplicitious…….if I had quit without giving two weeks notice – a burned job reference, and that would have made me very vulnerable if I had taken this new job and then wanted to jump ship and run for the hills when some creepy client expected me to sleep with him – it is much harder to quit a creepy job if you are pressured to have sex with a client, if you burned your previous employer by quitting without two weeks notice and I realized I would be stuck trapped in a form of indentured servitude that made me squirm with the “Ick Factor”.

        2. Marcella*

          Yes, last year I was told to be “nicer” to a male consultant who kept touching me – he’d pretend to cry on my shoulder, come up and rub my back, squeeze my arm, etc. And he’d interrupt my work to tell long stories about his former football career, complain about his wife. I was always polite but would move away from him. He complained that I was being unfriendly and the owner told me to “make more of an effort.”

          I can see where Emma would worry about blowback.

          1. Colleen Whalen*

            I know what you mean!

            It was ages ago way back in the mid-1970s when sexual harrassment was considered Hah-Hah-Funny-Great-Big-Joke”. I worked as a temp in a small shared office with just one other employee, who was also a secretary – who was also a temp. I got the impression the entire secretarial clerical staff were ALL temps and there was a chronic revolving door of turnover – even the temps were quitting and the employer could not keep even permanent hires.

            There were many other staff in this company but they worked down the hall in a different area.

            The creepy owner of the company would walk into my office several times a day, close the door, and bend down, and kneel right next to my chair, lean into me me VERY CLOSE and put his mouth and chin against my neck and nuzzle me – all the time making extremely wierd moaning, growling, grunting sounds. It was obvious he was experiencing some sort of creepy erotic “charge” from this. It would happen several times a day and was unbearable. The woman who was my co-worker in the desk next to me also was extremely uncomfortable with this…..the boss never did this to her – he never touched her – but she got the impression the boss was some sort of exhibitionist pervert who wanted an “audience” to watch while he was nuzzling, fondling me whilst groaning, moaning in ecstasy. Ick. Double ick!

            I was in between jobs and was temping while going on interviews. After telling the boss a dozen times to stop it – and him laughing at me – I called my temp agency and asked for them to make him quit. They did seem shocked and told me how innapproriate this was – and promised to contact the employer. Well it made no difference whatsoever – in fact, the sexual harrassment intensified and got worse. Within 2 days I decided to walk off the job and quit – I called the temp agency and told them to send me on a different temp assignment and I did not want to put them in a negative situation – that I was not in the habit of walking off jobs cold quitting but this employer was far beyond crossing the line. The temp agency did understand and said it would not negatively impact my future employment with them. They called the boss and told him to sign my time card and that I was walking off the job and they would send a replacement temp ONLY if he agreed to cease and desist with his nuzzling, fondling, groaning, moaning sexual harrassment.

            This is the wierdest part……..when I went into his office and handed him my temp agency time card to sign, he actually OFFERED ME THE JOB full time, permanent basis and blathered on how fabulous the benefits were. He quoted the salary range and I reminded him it was not a living wage, far below the going rate and even less than what I earned as a temp. As I was walking out of his office, he actually hollered at me “You are so foolish for turning down such a wonderful job opportunity.” Go figure.

      2. 1849 Wisconsin*

        This is too true. I remember deciding to break up with a guy I’d been dating and being genuinely unsure whether it was safe to do so in private. I’d been with him for over a year, and I still wasn’t sure if he’d react to a rejection with threats or actual violence.

        1. Jojo*

          I once gave a clear “no” to a guy who was interested in me. I won’t actually post the things he said and did because it would require a content warning and I don’t want to expose anyone to what would clearly be triggering for some. It was very scary, involved both verbal and physical threats, and was dismissed by the RA of my dorm. My safety and my life were threatened. You can be very sure that I never gave such a clear “no” to a guy after that happened.

          LW, I ask that you be more thoughtful of the power dynamics at play in customer/client situation, and do a better job of making your gym a safe workplace.

        2. Laser99*

          No woman should ever break up with a man in private. Call me hysterical, say I’ve watched too many crime shows, whatever. I don’t care. Just don’t.

    2. Tinkerbell*

      There’s a difference between being “alone one on one” in a gym setting – within shouting and potentially sight distance of colleagues, where his presence in the building has been captured on camera and in the computer, when everyone knows what exactly is supposed to be happening and when – and being “alone one on one” in a more volatile situation. I don’t think it’s necessarily inappropriate for the gym to allow one-on-one classes just because something MIGHT happen. I do think the OP is obligated to ensure *this particular guy and employee* don’t end up one-on-one again, because now there’s a history of it potentially being a problem.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        This really varies – there are plenty of smaller yoga studios and similar where there’s one class at a time and the instructor is the only employee in the facility, at least at times when the classes are typically small. It’s not necessarily a class in one room of a larger gym.

        1. cardigarden*

          Yeah I worked in a gym (rough size of a yoga studio) where I was the only employee on shift and we had no cameras. If anything were to happen, I’d have to hope that someone in the next building suite could hear.

      2. BlanketFort*

        While “shouting distance” is certainly helpful, the freeze response could negate it. There was a recent article in the NY Times about rape and the freeze response—plenty of people have been assaulted in shouting distance of others but still froze, because if fear and of basic biology. I’ve experienced this myself.

        1. pandop*

          I think I have commented here before, but I was told on a course at work run by our Counselling Service, that the current belief is that the freeze response was the earliest defence mechanism to evolve, and thus is ‘really ingrained’

      3. I'm just here for the cats!!*

        It depends. I wonder how alone they were. Is the room they were in right off of the main part of the gym where everyone can see them or is it more secluded? Are there other employees there and if so can they see/hear if something happens?

      4. DataGirl*

        Depends on the gym. The one I go to is one-on- one personal training only, with space for maximum 3 clients & trainers. it has happened more than once that me and my trainer were the only ones in the business.

      5. Kay*

        The amount of people who commit crimes while in places with witnesses and cameras should tell you that this isn’t an end all deterrent. Well, that and statistics on violence against women.

        1. Colleen Whalen*

          I agree.

          Even with CCTV security camera footage of an attacker going against the crime victim it is VERY HARD to even get the District Attorney to file charges for even the very worst sexual assault crimes. A very tiny percentage of crimes of sexual violence result in a jail sentence and most crime reports do not result in the perpetrator being arrested. If they are arrested, they easily make bail and then the charges wind up being dropped. Maybe a plea bargain, where the sexual assault is reduced to a lesser crime and only a fine and probation is given to the criminal.

          Here in Sacramento there is a backlog of over 20 years of rape evidence kits that were dumped in a storage room and ignored. The rape evidence kits were never sent to the lab to be processed! Without this evidence, all the charges were dropped. After 20 years, only because investigative journalists and advocacy organizations which stand up for survivors of sexual violence kept persisting – under extreme duress the Sacramento Police Dept and District Attorney are only going to process new rape kits evidence and send them to the lab for analysis, due to extreme negative publicity and public outrage.

          Here in California, the typical sentence for rape is less than 7 years and most of the time that criminal is released within 2-3 years if there is a “Good Behavior” early release offered by the parole board. There is a serious problem with overcrowded prisons and statewide, our District Attorneys do not consider prosecuting crimes of sexual violence to be a priority.

    3. ferrina*


      “I would do something if he actually threatened or hurt you.”

      Yeah, I don’t want to be in a position where being threatened or injured is an option. There are careers and jobs where that risk is inherent in the job; being a gym trainer is not one of them. And no, you can’t always tell which guy (or sometimes lady) will turn scary. That’s what makes it even scarier.

    4. Siege*

      Yeah, I’m really struggling with the idea that he hasn’t done something inappropriate by asking for an employee’s phone number. Emma giving it to him just tells me LW didn’t clearly outline what options she had and would be supported in before this ever came up.

    5. Clare*

      Knowing he’s banned now would be cold comfort from a hospital bed. I don’t everything sorted so a man can’t hurt me a second time. I want to not get hurt a first time.

  5. Public-facing Position*

    I feel for Emma, and I ask OP to take a moment to really imagine being alone with an unknown man who is asking something personal out of the blue.
    Even my very best boss, a kind fatherly figure with 2 daughters around my age could not understand the discomfort I felt when a library patron kept being too familiar with me. Boss was a kind respectful man, and couldn’t imagine that someone similar to him would do anything to make a 20-something young woman uncomfortable, so he concluded that I was making a mountain out of a mole hill.
    OP, please believe that Emma was caught off-guard and uncomfortable when Ryan asked for her number and she made the best decision she could in that moment. And please talk to ALL your staff about how they can react in similar situations, knowing you will back them. Maybe they can be given permission to say you told them not to cross that line?

    1. Kiki Is The Most*

      Agreed. Emma was at work so was in the ‘work zone’ frame of mind and was not expecting a client to ask her out. “Caught off guard” is just that and even those of us who have practiced boundary setting at work can still feel flustered in the moment; and in wanting to be professionally polite, will just give the phone number (…or laugh it off, or whatever happens in the moment to hurry through the uncomfortable situation).
      It seems easy to say what ANY of the participants in this situation ‘should’ have done but it just doesn’t always play out that way, especially when it’s not our situation first-hand.

      1. Colleen Whalen*

        Haven’t we all been in the position of something said to us that was either rude or inappropriate and we were so very stunned and shocked, we were at a loss for words and too stunned how to respond? Then 30 minutes later, we think of what we SHOULD have said or done? That “freeze response” is understandable. I’ve typically given a fake telephone number to aggressive guys who ask for my telephone number and will not take no for an answer. The problem is that only works if it is a stranger who has no way to follow up and find you when they realize you gave them a fake phone number. If it is a client or a co-worker who is pestering you for your phone number, address, email, and to “like” them on your social media – it is a lot more difficult to avoid this. Anyone who has the ability to keep pestering you……….that is the real unpleasant part – staff who work in retail stores, food service or an office where clients have easy access to the person they want to pester and wear down to go out on dates with them. Really difficult for the employee to avoid that harrassment UNLESS management is authoritative and takes control of the situation and shuts down the harrassment.

  6. Choggy*

    I agree it’s always a good idea to provide a polite “out” when you don’t feel comfortable saying no due to a potential reaction, especially when in a vulnerable position (alone) with the person. Ensuring employee safety should be job 1 for any employer, and if someone comes to you with a concern, it should be taken seriously, with immediate steps taken to prevent any issue.

    So glad your employee came to you directly with this and you agreed to change her schedule not to be alone (with *any* client ideally). I hope you do the same with all your employees as they may feel the same but aren’t voicing it.

    It sucks we have to be so vigilant about this, but that’s the world we live in.

  7. Melissa*

    I’m a woman (40) who has never been on the receiving end of any threatening or scary behavior from a man. But I still feel awkward saying a direct No— and at 22 years old, I was absolutely mortified by the thought of doing so. I am saying this to emphasize that women are often socialized so young to be pleasant and polite, poor Emma probably hates the idea of saying No. I do think she NEEDS to do that, but I’m not sure it’s your role as an employer to give her that type of direction.

    I think, if you have a good relationship with Emma, you can talk this through with her: “Have you spoken with him directly? Would you like me to help you do that?” As you said, he has done nothing wrong, other than being a little dense. I think there’s hope to salvage Emma’s comfort while keeping him as a customer.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Same. I have been lucky enough to never have been in a threatening situation with a man (unless you count the neighborhood bully when we were kids who punched me in the face) but I was definitely socialized to not say “No” to people. I had an awkward couple of “dates” (not framed as dates, per se, but they definitely were) with a guy who worked in the library (in a different area than where I worked but we still essentially were at the same workplace) when I was in grad school that I was really not interested in. Instead of giving him a definite “No thanks, not interested” I had to ghost him because I was raised that ignoring someone was way more polite than being clear and firm. (Or even worse, that ignoring someone who annoys you will make them stop, which definitely doesn’t work.) It’s possible I also made up excuses as to why I couldn’t go out with him again (“Oh, sorry, out of town…doing my hair that night…” etc), similar to how OP thinks it might be useful to tell Ryan that Emma has a boyfriend (it’s not). But either way, I am a bit miffed that I was raised this way and I am only now (like Melissa, in my 40s) working on being really clear with my “Nos.”

      OP would probably be doing Emma a service if she took the advice in Melissa’s 2nd paragraph. Let’s all help the young women out there learn to say no in a safe and polite but firm way, shall we?

      1. Melissa*

        Yes— in college I did a lot of “ghost him and hope I never run into him again.” Which is totally the wrong way to handle it; it left me so anxious (what if I run into him and it’s awkward?) and surely left him confused.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          I went to a women’s college and barely dealt with dudes my age in college (and even in HS didn’t do much of it), so I had to start learning later in life than most women do. But I also ghosted a kid in high school who I went out with a few times and wasn’t interested in. Ghosting never made me feel good; I wish I’d had the maturity even as a teenager to just say, “You know what? This doesn’t work for me, wish you all the best.” Some better guidance from adults would have helped a lot.

      2. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

        What world do you live in? Let’s teach women to say no in a safe way?! There is no guaranteed safe way. MEN have to learn to accept no with grace and respect. Then women can say no safely.

        The fact that you say you’ve been lucky to never be threatened and then end with this… I just can’t. I have too many strong angry feelings to say more.

        1. Butterfly Counter*


          Scenario 1:

          Dude: Will you go out with me?
          Gal: No thank you. I don’t want to.
          Dude: F***** b****. You’re ugly anyway. You better hope this is the last time I see you.

          Monday morning quarterback: See here, ladies? You need to be more gentle in letting a person down. Being so blunt will make men mad and show you are uncaring of how other people will experience rejection.

          Scenario 2:

          Dude: Will you go out with me?
          Gal: Oh, goodness! Um. I’m so flattered! Oh my. My schedule is so busy right now, I don’t think I have the time…
          Dude: So how about next week? I’m busy too, but I’ll make time for you.
          Gal: We’ll see
          *one week later*
          Dude: About that date…
          Gal: I don’t think I can make dating work for me right now. So sorry!
          Dude: F***** b****. Why’d you string me along? I see you going out all the time on your social media. Maybe your friends or boss should know what a liar you are.

          Monday morning quarterback: See ladies? You need to be brisk and clear with your rejection or else you’ll get his hopes up, which can make men even more mad. You need to be more caring in how you reject men.

          Basically, women are told to reject someone “better,” but NO! Not like that!

          Realistically, what society seems to want is for women just to go on the date and let it be the guy that makes the decision of whether or not to date.

          1. Slow Gin Lizz*

            I know that some men can be really terrible, horrible, awful excuses for human beings (just because I have been lucky to avoid it doesn’t mean I don’t also read the news and know plenty of horrible things that men have done to women) and of course I agree with you that we need to teach men all the things you say, but also let’s remind women that they can say no, ok? I was taught to just ignore problems rather than dealing with them and *that’s* the situation I’m referring to. I know men do respond badly to women saying no, and maybe Emma is afraid of that (which is absolutely valid) but I am talking about an alternative scenario in which Emma was raised in a way similar to how I was and that she might not be afraid to say no, she just might have been told not to. If that is the case, OP might be able to empower Emma to say no, and of course OP has already stated that if Ryan turns out to be the kind of person who doesn’t take rejection well OP will back Emma up.

            It is possible that Emma really is afraid of saying no to Ryan because she is afraid he might react violently or be verbally abusive, in which case I do know that my advice isn’t very helpful. I am merely offering an alternative point of view.

            1. mcm*

              but not knowing which of these situations Emma is in, it seems extremely presumptuous to assume that what Emma needs here is help knowing she should deliver a stronger no, rather than more support and options to make her feel safe. She’s already chosen not to reject Ryan one on one, now her boss can support her in finding other ways to handle this.

              1. Slow Gin Lizz*

                I didn’t say I assumed Emma *needs* help in knowing she should deliver a stronger no, I just said that is *one possiblity.*

            2. Pixx*

              But *it is not always safe to just say no*. I can’t believe you keep missing that. A Black woman recently said no to a man, and he picked up a brick and bashed her face in. She uploaded a video from the hospital. A teenage girl was just murdered in the UK for saying no to a boy and rejecting his flowers. It’s. Not. Always. Safe. To. “Just. Say. No.”

              1. Anna*

                Yah basically we went from ‘women must always say no so no means yes’ to a nominal ‘no means no, guys!’ to ‘women are afraid to say no so yes can mean no’. I guess some progress has been made, but we have some ways to go.

    2. Reality Check*

      Seconding this. We are definitely socialized to be polite, to our own detriment. I’ve never been threatened when rejecting a man’s advances, but there were a few that seemed to think they could nag/browbeat me into going on a date with them. “Aw, come on! Why not??” It’s freaking awkward. So yeah, I totally get why Emma did what she did and will probably be thankful for her boss having her back.

      1. Chirpy*

        This. The last customer who tried to ask me out kept coming up with more questions for me to answer about products all over the store so he could keep asking questions like “but what if I’m your soul mate?” or “it’s just coffee!” I had to be polite because he was a customer, and my (all-male) managers absolutely do not understand why a polite “no” doesn’t work.

        1. Sage*

          Reminds me on how I was on the street with a guy, and he was asked by one of those pushy beggers to give him some money, or maybe it was this pretending to be deaf to “collect” money thing. I don’t remember all the details.

          Anyway, my pal just told the beggar one simple no, and the beggar leaved him alone. It blow my mind because the only time a no of me worked at the first time, I was quite angry at having to fight for my no yet again and I could feel my body preparing for a fight if needed. I don’t want to be ready to punch faces in order for people to respect my no.

    3. Alex*

      Yes, I agree, that context matters here. Socially, women are socialized/expected to be friendly and pleasant at all times and often, men can mistake platonic friendliness or.. wait for it.. women simply do our jobs, as romantic interest when it isn’t. I think age is also a big factor here. Thinking back to when I was in my early 20s, I would not have known what to do in that exact moment where I am asked to give a man my number at my workplace, where I did not anticipate something like that happening, because again, this is a workplace. There is also plausible deniability where I may have thought for a split second that he is *possibly* asking for my number for work-related purposes, and not for anything social/potentially romantic. To put the onus of directness (the rejection of a man) on a young woman who has to make a split second decision in a social context that expects her to say yes, is an egregious oversight on OP’s part as the owner and boss of this young woman. Your priority should be Emma’s safety and empowering her to know she can say “no” and to loop you in to other sketchy situations, knowing that you will have her back.

    4. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

      I disagree strongly that Ryan has done nothing wrong. He asked for a service person’s personal phone number while she was working. That is absolutely a thing guys do to women in service because they want to believe “she’s into me” when she’s just being pleasant as part of her job. The fact that they were alone and she might therefore feel cornered never crossed his mind, because dudes never think of that. They only think of what they want.

      Whether Emma was scared or surprised or embarrassed does not change that RYAN WAS WRONG. Her boss does not need to coach her to talk to him. If anything, boss could talk to Ryan and tell him to stop hitting on her staff.

      1. sparkle emoji*

        As a former Emma, yes. This type of situation can be shocking because it’s unexpected. I was lucky enough to have an older coworker step in and take over with her tactical customer service skills, but had she not been there I would have stammered trying to find just the right phrasing to say no while not upsetting the guy. And in hindsight, he knew what he was doing. He waited to ask until the special purchase I received commission on went through because reciprocity is a big thing for human brains.

    5. Thatoneoverthere*

      At 22, I struggled with turning down someone at work. I was engaged to my now husband. I worked at a small retail shop and was often scheduled 1:1 with another guy. He asked me out constantly, even though I turned him down. But he sounds alot like Ryan. Sweet, awkward but couldn’t take no for answer (still ick). It finally got to the point where I said yes, but I was bringing my fiance with me. It was only then he backed off.

      I never thought to bring it up to my superiors or ask him to stop. I was young and awkward myself. He, while nice (but annoying persistent) was so awkward, I was afraid of working with him after that. Thankfully I quit shortly after and never saw him again.

    6. Snow Globe*

      I agree that women are socialized to manage other people’s feelings, which could be an issue here, possibly *in addition to* fear of a negative reaction. But, while it might be a good idea for Emma to feel more comfortable in saying no, that coaching should not come from her boss. That could give the impression that Emma is expected by her boss to respond a certain way, and Emma really should make her own calculation about what she is comfortable saying. Saying ‘no’ to men should not be a job requirement.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        I think if the boss makes it clear that Emma doesn’t have to respond that certain way, it could be helpful for Emma if the boss gives Emma some coaching in the matter. But boss could also ask Emma how she wants to deal with the situation; boss could offer to talk to Ryan for Emma, or ask Emma if Emma herself wants to talk to him herself. Which is pretty much the advice AAM gives.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          Also it’s helpful to remember that “No is a full sentence.” Something I have to remind myself often. No need to justify that no, because that can give Ryan an “in” to argue whyyyyyyy that reasoning isn’t correct.

        2. CG*

          Your insistence, here and above, that Emma needs “coaching,” is really missing the point. Yes, women *should* be able to say no. But coaching them to do so in potentially dangerous situations (such as this one, when a man you don’t know well is asking for personal info) is a really terrible idea. He already knows her work schedule, and he has already crossed her professional boundaries. Emma clearly already feels uncomfortable. “Coaching” her to respond in a way that could lead to her being harmed is deeply risky and unhelpful. OP, please don’t take this advice!

          1. Slow Gin Lizz*

            I am not insisting the Emma *needs* coaching, I am simply offering an alternative explanation for why Emma may have not been able to say no when Ryan asked her for her phone number.

    7. Goldenrod*

      “I am saying this to emphasize that women are often socialized so young to be pleasant and polite, poor Emma probably hates the idea of saying No.”

      This is an astute comment. There was an article in the NYT recently about a woman who paid her taxi driver and thanked him, immediately after he had raped her. She was in shock, and defaulted to “be polite to men.”

    8. mcm*

      I want to challenge the idea that this is a situation in which Emma NEEDS to say no to this man in a more direct way. There can be very real and very violent consequences for rejecting men. I know that as women we are socialized into being polite, but part of this can also be a very real and correct calculus of danger of rejecting a man. If Emma has determined that she can’t comfortably and safely say no to Ryan directly, she shouldn’t be forced to. There are other ways of delivering a softer and safer rejection.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        Definitely. This is only one out of many possible ways to deal with the situation. Absolutely not the only way and not even one I would consider the best way, just a possibility, is all.

    9. Colleen Whalen*

      I don’t think you understand that all employers are required by law to shut down any form of workplace sexual harrassment. Also workplace bullying if it is based on race, religion, disability, country of origin, gender, etc. Yes, it IS the role of the employer to have codified rules in the HR employee manual that clearly state any form of workplace harrassment is banned and if it happens, will be dealt with immediately and disciplinary action taken.

      Putting the onus on the employee to deal with it is a VERY BAD idea – the gym mgr telling Emily – “Go to Ryan and tell him to leave you alone”. Emily already did that. She made it obvious she doesn’t want to date him and he will not leave her alone. It is NOT the employees responsibility to resolve sexual harrassment or creepy semi-stalking by clients. That is the job of the employer to shut it down.

      BTW, Yes, Ryan DID do something wrong. He kept pestering Emily after she repeatedly tried to avoid and evade him. She lost work wages by giving up her early am exercise class she used to teach that Ryan always showed up at. Ryan is not “a little dense” he is a creeper who does not take no for an answer. The gym mgr needs to put in writing on gym letterhead to cease and desist and a “no contact” policy between Ryan trying to engage Emily in person at the gym, no waiting outside the gym and lying in wait until she gets off of work, no more texts or phone calls. If Ryan is not compliant with that letter, then the gym mgr needs to permanently ban him as a client. The employees safety is far more important than whether or not Ryan remains a client. This is Emily’s financial livelhood and how she pays her bills. Ryan can go work out at a different gym if he refuses to take no for an answer. He is not some sort of hapless goofball who is socially awkward and too inept to interpret social cues. He has crossed the line too many times already. One written warning from the gym manager and if he persists – he gets permanently fired as a client.

  8. cardigarden*

    Flashback to the time I was working my university library’s welcome desk and some guy asked me out because I told him where to find the printers. My brain-to-mouth filter landed on “sorry I don’t like ice cream” rather than “I’m literally just doing my job leave me alone” because ~customer service rules~.

    1. ferrina*

      Ugh. “The Customer Is Always Right” strikes again.

      Part of the calculous in customer service is walking that fine line between saying no and keeping the customer happy. If the customer walks away angry, they can do a lot of damage by complaining to your manager. They usually won’t say “I’m upset because they don’t want to go out with me”; they’ll say things like “they were rude to me” or “they are not good at their job” or even make something up. And a lot of us have had that manager that makes you responsible for keeping an unreasonable customer happy*. If you’ve lived through that kind of nonsense, you need to really know that your manager will back you up in order to feel comfortable giving a hard no.

      *this can also happen in family or social situations where an adult or authority figure makes you the person who is charged with making an unreasonable person happy, rather than the adult/authority figure taking responsibility for managing the unreasonable person (which they should)

  9. S*

    “that avoidance means that I as her employer have been inserted into what should have been handled between two young adults as an interpersonal issue.”

    It’s a workplace issue because he’s a client. That puts it squarely in your jurisdiction. If they were also friends outside the studio, it might be hard to tease things apart and figure out your proper role, but in this case, it’s much simpler.

    1. Clare*

      Exactly. It’s not a personal thing, he’s a workplace hazard she’s been exposed to in the course of her work. You need to protect your employee the same way a mine owner needs to give their employees respirators. If it were a personal thing it would actually be far easier for her to avoid exposure.

  10. Llama Lover*

    It is so exhausting for women to be told by men to “just say no,” when they have no idea just how dangerous it is for us to do that. I get “not all men,” but how are we to know which men. It’s really scary when you judge wrong and get the wrath. Putting this on Emma is just as unfair as it is for Ryan to be doing this in the first place. If you don’t know in the year 2023 that hitting on people while they’re working is wrong, I just can’t even. OP, do your part by having clear policies in place on what’s not acceptable in your gym.

    1. Veryanon*

      Yep. I remember once when I was a college student, I was taking the bus home from school for the weekend as I didn’t have a car. There was a man on the bus who would not leave me alone. In the moment, it was very scary, and I ended up going to sit behind the bus driver so that I could ask for his help – thankfully, he forced the guy off at the next station. But yes, having to do this calculation every time you’re in public and some guy approaches you is exhausting.

    2. JaneDough(not)*


      Not only do we have to wary of strangers, we can’t necessarily trust men we’re supposed to be able to, such as police officers. I’m thinking about the late Sarah Everard, and if you don’t know what happened to her — she lived in London, so you might not — but choose to read about her, I warn you that it’s very upsetting.

      1. Marcella*

        Or the cop who just forcibly committed his ex-girlfriend to a mental hospital – and other police knew about it. That was a fun news story this week.

        1. Veryanon*

          Oh God, that was horrible. My dad was a police officer (retired now) and I used to think that most cops were good guys, but have since realized that the good ones are few and far between. Not to hijack this thread with comments about the police. :(

          1. Sagegreen is my favorite color.*

            I just read that last night and I agree with you. I now think the good cops are rare.

      2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        What’s additionally upsetting is that that wasn’t an isolated incident. Around a thousand cases are currently being investigated against Met officers. Just one police force. And even where complaints are upheld, the vast majority keep their jobs.

    3. kiki*

      Yes! Women know not all men are genuine threats but it’s not really possible to know which ones will or won’t be. I know a lot of men think that because they’re nice, upstanding gentlemen in their daily lives, women shouldn’t be afraid of them, but a lot of men who are seemingly nice and upstanding aren’t that way when rejected.

      While perhaps Emma is mostly avoiding a potentially awkward interaction, it seems like her biggest concern has been not being alone with Ryan going forward. That seems safety-based to me. There’s the possibility that Emma saying no clearly earlier-on would have been fine, but there’s also a chance it wouldn’t have. Emma was the one there in the moment– I think we should trust her assessment and she didn’t feel safe telling Ryan no.

      1. bamcheeks*

        and a lot of the seemingly nice and upstanding ones will do, “Well, sure but –” I remember ten years ago one of my colleagues telling me she was absolutely furious because she’d been sexually harassed whilst out running and her husband’s response was, “I mean, to be fair, look at how you were dressed”. Which completely makes him sound like an asshole, but he is in every other way an incredibly supportive husband and father to their daughters and they’ve been happily together for ~20 odd years, she just couldn’t rely on him for this one thing– and potentially neither will their daughters.

    4. Jennifer Strange*

      Plus, they’re being told “just say no” while simultaneously being told “Oh, he’s so nice! I won’t hurt you to go on just one date!”

      1. Former Young Lady*

        Ugh, seriously. “Take one for the team!” It is not our responsibility to be pity-escorts for unknown quantities. We do not owe men to pretend we’re interested, and any man who feels entitled to such is probably not a man we want to spend time with.

        1. frustratedTrainee*

          I dated a guy in highschool for like, 3 weeks, then he broke up with me. Later, he decided he wanted to get back with me and got *obsessed*. He’d start whining loudly in public that I was his dream girl, that he’d never find anyone like me so I had to date him (his reasonings were that I wore sarongs and that’s so interesting, or I played games and he likes games, surface-level things that in no way meant I had to be interested in him).

          He graduated the year before me and on valentine’s day he sent me, at the school, a huge box of toys and chocolates that I did not want or ask for. Everyone who was in our friend group, including MY SISTER, told me that I now owed it to him to have sex with him. I didn’t have to DATE him, but I did have to have sex with him because….he sent me stuff I don’t want? After harassing me for like two years? I insisted I didn’t and they said I was being a child and selfish and heartless and I know this is what other women frequently get told because they have similar stories of being not backed up AT ALL and this is 100% a part of the calculation in whether I’d say no or not, I’ve been trained to understand that other people will take pity on the man and act like I’m a blow-up doll to be shipped out to men for their use like no one’s even living inside this body or anything.

      2. THE PANCREAS*

        I am almost certain I’ve told this story before. I was 16, working in a fast food restaurant, and one of the 20 year olds I worked with was soft, kind, socially awkward, but physically menacing (he was at least a foot taller than me with a large stature). He took a liking to me that I tried to be gentle with, including buying me a present at Christmas and leaving it in the work breakroom. While closing the restaurant with him and our male assistant manager, he asked me out over the headset and the assistant manager encouraged me to give him a chance. I felt obligated to go to a movie with him. It was a horrible experience, I made myself as physically small as possible leaning as far away the entire time. And the whole time I was worried about making him feel and making my boss mad.

        1. coffeespoons*

          That is awful, and I’m so sorry you had to deal with it. I am retroactively FURIOUS at your manager, who had no business responding the way they did. You should never have had to go out on a date with a co-worker because your boss pressured you into “giving him a chance”!

      3. jasmine*

        And if something bad does happen after saying no, you don’t know if people will go “well did something bad actually happen, he’s such a nice guy :(“

        1. Former Young Lady*

          Yup! Or “Well, you obviously led him on” by…what, smiling? Saying hello? Daring to be female in public?

          We can’t win.

    5. londonedit*

      It is so exhausting. Of course, it isn’t every interaction with a man. But it’s enough to make your heart sink every time you realise ‘Oh, no, he’s trying to hit on me and now I have to do the mental calculation of whether to smile and nod and hope he goes away, or whether to say no and hope he doesn’t turn out to be an arsehole’. Even if he doesn’t turn out to be an arsehole, it’s awkward and really bloody depressing when the man you were having a perfectly enjoyable time speaking to suddenly does the ‘Soooooo…’ thing. Because of course he couldn’t just be enjoying talking to you as a human being, could he. And especially so as Emma is at work! Not only is it awkward in the moment, it’s awkward every time Ryan comes to the gym. And the response? ‘Oh, we’ll take you off that class, Emma’. Rather than actually speaking to the man about his behaviour. See the recent Russell Brand discussion – one of the women accusing him later worked in TV production and saw and heard discussions about young women being removed from production teams when Brand was mooted as a potential host for the project. Yes, let’s restrict women’s opportunities rather than dealing with the appalling behaviour of entitled men.

      1. bamcheeks*

        Literally come straight to this page from reading about a 15 year old girl who was stabbed and killed in Croydon this morning because she turned down a boy who tried to give her flowers. Absolutely heartbreaking.

        Does LW think this kind of thing doesn’t happen at work? Or that it’s always possible to tell whether a guy is “threatening” with a 100% success rate? It’s not.

        1. londonedit*

          Exactly. This stuff is terrifyingly prevalent among young men these days – I don’t know whether it’s Andrew Tate, or what it is, but the level of respect shown to young women by their peers is shocking at the moment. I don’t know what can be done about it, but something needs to be done because it’s disgusting.

          1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

            The PUA, MRA, Incel kind of forums and personalities have a lot to answer for. There’s a worrying trend of men believing that they have a right to have a woman and they are owed one of us.

            To them, we’re objects and if an object doesn’t work the way you want you break it and get rid of it. This is exactly how they think.

            1. Storm in a teacup*

              It is so distressing. Was talking to some friends over the weekend, most of whom have teenage boys and they’ve all explicitly discussed consent with their sons and no means no etc..
              It’s worrying the impact these online jerks have on teenage boys

          2. Storm in a teacup*

            The whole news cycle at the moment in the UK of Brand (colour me unsurprised) and the issues in the Met force are so depressing.
            I work with a genuinely decent, empathetic, socially aware guy in his early thirties. A group of us were chatting over lunch about how we were getting home after a work event that was running late and he called me bougie for getting a cab from the tube station rather than doing a 15-20 minute walk.
            Now to be fair I can be bougie sometimes, but I had to explain to him actually it was about safety, risk of rape and I used the Sarah Everard case to illustrate my point. He was mortified as it was something that hadn’t even occurred to him and made reflect on his teasing his girlfriend about always wanting to get cabs at night. I just can’t sometimes.

    6. mb*

      THIS. 100%. There should just be a policy banning clients from asking out employees – and from employees giving out their personal info. Then the clients know in advance that they are not allowed to ask people out or their personal info – and employees can point to the policy and say “sorry, I’m not allowed as per company policy”. This takes the pressure off the employee and creates a safe way to turn down clients. This happened at your place of business and Emma might never have met Ryan if she didn’t work there – therefore YOUR responsibility to deal with, NOT Emma’s.

      1. NotRealAnonForThis*


        I’ve been stewing about the “policy about forbidding employees from giving out personal information”, because though well intentioned, can we maybe partner it with a terms of use agreement for clients that “they will not request personal information from employees while employees are on company premises”? Because let’s name the problem here, its “Ryan”, not “Emma”.

    7. 1-800-BrownCow*

      Exactly this! A family friend’s extremely abusive and controlling former husband was Mr. Personality in public. Many people thought he was such a great guy and didn’t know what he truly was like. It’s not easy at all to tell which guys are safe and which aren’t.

  11. 2 Cents*

    In this day, there are so many additional places someone can be followed, tracked, harassed and scared by someone who hears a no and doesn’t like it than it was even 15 years ago. I don’t blame your instructor for hedging on the “no” and giving out her number. Since you’re the boss, having a posted rule like “clients are forbidden from asking instructors for their numbers” (or something) would give otherwise hesitant employees something to fall back on (“Sorry, I can’t — it’s against work policy and I’d be fired.”)

    1. Seashell*

      I agree. If Emma wanted to, she could tell this guy that she discovered that this is against work policy and then block him on social media and block or not respond to his texts. It might be easier if she can blame the lack of contact on the job.

        1. ferrina*

          This. LW should talk with Emma to confirm that Emma is comfortable with this or if Emma would like to do this herself, and then have that conversation with Ryan. If he wasn’t aware before, then he is now.

          LW should also apologize to Emma for not acting sooner and talk about how she can support Emma to make sure she feels safe. Apologizing is critical- “I’m sorry that I didn’t act when you felt unsafe. Here’s how I’m going to do better.” You need to show that you understand that you made a mistake- otherwise it looks like you didn’t learn anything, and that makes you Not Trusted. If you can’t be consistent in keeping your employees safe, then your employees have to assume that you are dangerous. This may hurt to hear, because LW otherwise sounds like a nice person. But I’ve been through more than my share of unsafe situations- if I wasn’t absolutely sure that someone was safe, I had to assume that they were dangerous, because if I made a mistake in trusting someone I shouldn’t have, the consequences would be horrible. There is no margin of error.

    2. Anon for this*

      A woman I’m mutuals with on Twitter (I refuse to call it X) was recently featured in our local newspaper about super fans of our local football team. Some rando googled her name, found her unlisted, private phone number and her address, and sent her text messages asking her out, which she posted on Twitter. The number of men in the comments saying that it was her fault for not locking her information down better!!!!! How about don’t google and stalk women you don’t know! So creepy and scary.

      1. Warrior Princess Xena*


        But yeah, while it’s good to lock down your information (because there are creeps out there), it’s better policy to not be a creep!

      2. Clare*

        Hard no to all of that. I should be able to post all of my contact details across the internet and walk down the street in a bikini and be 100% safe, and if anyone abuses me because of it, that’s entirely on them. They have the option to ignore it.

  12. Don't Send Your Kids to Hudson University*

    I think this is a really instructive and helpful response to the letter writer. I think there is a version of this where a younger female employee handles this situation both directly and delicately, but finding fault with the employee for falling short of the ideal response is not appropriate. The employee did nothing inappropriate and this is an opportunity for the owner to offer potential interventions that are designed to prevent the employee from feeling like this is her problem to solve (changing her teaching schedule was a perfect example of how to do that well! LW, keep leaning into the instincts you had when you made that call).

    1. bamcheeks*

      I’d add– only as long as it was a change that left Emma with the same number of hours overall. If Emma lost hours as a result of that change and was effectively choosing between avoiding Ryan and, I don’t know, a $100 payment for that class each week? That’s shitty.

      1. Don't Send Your Kids to Hudson University*

        Totally agree — I read (and re-read) the letter as saying Emma simply swapped classes with another instructor. You’re right though, Emma should not be in the position of having to choose between her income and being in a work environment free from sexual harassment (or personal safety).

    2. bighairnoheart*

      Totally agree! OP, you have the chance now to put some no-employee-client-fraternization policies in place and give employees the tools/scripts to know how to handle these kinds of situations in the future. It’s a really unfortunate reality, but this kind of thing is likely to happen again because you employ women in roles where they interact directly with customers, sometimes alone, and often in intimate, or at least, seemingly intimate situations. You’re doing the right thing accommodating Emma’s request to change her schedule. Now, focus on reframing the issue from an interpersonal issue you don’t want to be involved in, to a workplace issue you have the power to help prevent and address in the future!

      1. Samwise*

        Not only likely to happen again, but for sure has already happened in the past. Emma is not the first employee at this gym who has had to deal with this.

        1. bighairnoheart*

          Something about the letter made me think maybe the OP has only owned and operated this business for a short time. If so, this might genuinely the first time it’s happened. But if the business has been around awhile, I agree, this is very likely happened before and this is just the first time OP is hearing about it.

  13. bird*

    not loving this idea that Ryan has “done nothing wrong” – he, deep down, knows Emma is less able to say no when she’s in a customer service role, and guys who ask women out who are at work are the exact kind of guys who know or will pretend not to know that they are abusing power dynamics for their own benefit. He’s not committed a crime, but he’s giving amber flags

    1. DameB*

      This line stands out to me: “Emma replied only to texts that were related to the fitness studio and did not add him back on social media.” That’s a very clear (if soft) no.

      Also, Emma waited several weeks to see if her soft no took. It didn’t. That indicates she’s uncomfortable because he’s IGNORNING her. I don’t care if he’s awkward — “I only respond to conversations about my work” is pretty damned clear to anyone who isn’t in the habit of disregarding boundaries.

      1. ferrina*

        Yup. I know a couple guys that do this- they skirt the edge of the no. They don’t ask directly for what they want so you can’t directly say no (and if you do, then they get to claim that you were seeing things that weren’t there or say you’re crazy). They just ignore the soft no. They are “nice” guys and say “nice” things. They stand a little too close and if you take a step back, they take a step closer. If you call them out, they claim they didn’t know they were doing it.
        It’s really scary. I was in a relationship with one of these guys (I had mental health issues and couldn’t see the red flags). They only escalate.

        Maybe Ryan is genuinely oblivious. But he’s giving signs that he might be one of these guys, and Emma is right to be wary.

      2. Former Young Lady*

        Exactly. If a dude were blowing him off on a platonic level, he’d get it. This is a weaponization of fake obliviousness.

        And there’s a pretty big overlap in the Venn circles of “dudes who ignore a soft no” and “dudes who will flip out at an assertive no.”

        I’ve worked for a woman who thought this kind of behavior was no big deal, and men’s feelings mattered more than the safety of her female staff, and who put the onus on women to use the EXACT MAGIC WORDS to turn down advances without provoking violent/creepy retaliation.

        It was not the only way in which she was bad at management, but it was plenty bad on its own. LW needs to realize how serious this is, do some self-reflection, and take responsibility now.

        1. londonedit*

          Yep. Women simultaneously are supposed to smile and be nice because ‘he’s just being a nice guy’, and not be *too* nice, because that might be ‘leading him on’ and then it’s ‘unfair’ if we go on to reject his advances. Sigh.

          1. Former Young Lady*

            Truth. We are somehow responsible for managing all of their feelings at all times, and apparently there’s no correct way to do it.

      3. Gerri’s Jaunty Hat*

        Exactly- she’s not giving “subtle signals” like some kind of secret code. She’s ignoring non-work contact from him.

        When someone is interested in pursuing a further relationship it’s really easy to tell because they will be positive and enthusiastic. Tepid responses to only the work-related messages will never be what someone does who wants to date you. She’s being as clear as needed.

    2. Beth*

      A lot of people seem to have this idea that single men should be able to romantically approach whatever women they want, whenever they want, and as long as they’re not overtly threatening and take a direct “no” if it’s given, then they’re doing nothing wrong. It’s such BS. If you want to approach strangers romantically, then you absolutely have to be able to read the room and leave people who aren’t interested alone, or you ARE being inappropriate and rude.

      If someone is at work? On the subway with their headphones on? Looking tired as they grab a head of lettuce in the grocery store? Heck, in a singles bar but not looking your way or showing any signs of interest in you? Leave them alone. This isn’t your perfect meet-cute opportunity–it’s just a person being a person, she’s busy, don’t demand her time or energy when she’s showing zero signs of interest in you. Women don’t exist to be your dating pool.

      1. ferrina*

        Honestly, I’d love to live in a world where single women feel safe being approached and asked on a date by a complete stranger. In that world, a woman would be confident that a man would hear “no” and leave her alone- no glaring at her or acting the Very Sad Boy ™ or approaching her again to ask her out again or approaching her again to definitely-not-ask-her-out-why-would-you-think-that. In that world, a woman wouldn’t need to worried about being followed around the supermarket or having her car recognized by a potential stalker. She wouldn’t have to vigilantly monitor her social media accounts to make sure that he’s not trying to track her down through other outlets. She wouldn’t have to explain or justify or soften her no- she would say no and never worry about being told that she’s cold or b*tchy or rude or too picky or “he’s such a nice guy, you should give him a chance” or even “he’d be good for you, you need to do this.” In that wonderful world, everyone around her would hear “I’m not interested” and respect that she knows what she wants and that she is communicating clearly, and they would back her up on the decision that she made. Girls would be taught from a young age that their voices are important and that they deserve to be assertive, and that assertiveness would be valued by their teachers, parents, and other adults in their life. Boys would be encouraged to be in touch with their emotions, to identify what sadness and disappointment feels like and how to own those emotions without blaming someone else for them. Kids of all genders would grow up feeling valued for being themself- there would be no disproportionate statistics around violence being perpetrated by or to certain genders.

        Can I live in that world? That sounds really nice.

        1. Beth*

          It does, but even in that world I would like people to look for signs of interest before approaching a total stranger! When I’m carrying my groceries home on the sidewalk, I don’t want to pause to listen to some random dude proposition me, tell him no, and then continue on my way. I’m busy. If he can’t be bothered to do the work of looking for signs of interest, then I don’t see why he thinks I owe him my time.

  14. JaneDough(not)*

    LW, I (a woman) concur 1,000,000% with all that Alison wrote, and I’m adding three things:

    1. Women are socialized to be nice to everyone, which includes not hurting someone else’s feelings even when doing so causes discomfort or inconvenience for the woman herself; that was almost certainly another element in Emma’s giving him her number.

    2. Emma, a college senior, is presumably only 20 or 21; she hasn’t had much time to figure out how to get out of these situations — and, as Alison noted, women ***always*** have, at the back of their mind, the knowledge that a rejected man can cause a big problem later on. (If you don’t know the famous Margaret Atwood quote: Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.)

    3. Emma probably didn’t want to risk angering you by antagonizing a client — Ryan might have canceled his membership had she said no. That’s less money in your pocket, and that could affect Emma’s employment.

    Please work on understanding what women, especially young women with less experience of deflecting unwanted attention, experience almost every day of their lives. A good place to start is by watching the YT vid titled “Woman shares footage of assault by street harasser at Paris cafe,” in which a man who didn’t get the response he wanted from a woman ***he didn’t know*** felt entitled to hit her. Men and women live very different lives.

  15. t-vex*

    Oh, man. Poor Emma. It never occurs to most men that even strong confident capable women constantly have in the back of their minds, “will this man try to kill me, and how can I act to minimize the chances.”

    1. Gerry Keay*

      Yeah this letter my blood boil, as someone who has more than once been in circumstances with men where I was afraid to give a hard no. This type of vicitm-blaming, “she didn’t say no clearly enough” thinking is so insidious.

  16. Caramel & Cheddar*

    “You’d be doing all your employees a favor if you let them tell clients you have a policy preventing them from socializing with clients.”

    If you have a code of conduct for your clients when they sign up for classes, this is probably worth adding to that as well. I would frame it slightly differently, though, e.g. “Clients are expected to respect the studio as a professional space by not asking to connect with our instructors outside of class” or whatever makes the most sense and sounds least like “Yikes, clearly there was An Incident that required this to be added.”.

  17. BellyButton*

    Thank you so much for this. Thank you for very clearly stating why women are scared to say no. So many people (mostly men) do not get it. I have never met a woman who didn’t have at least one experience of telling a man no and him get verbally aggressive. For me personally, I would estimate that about 70% of the time I rejected a man they reacted aggressively – not just verbally, but physically as well. I am 49 yrs old and it happened to me last Thursday at the airport bar when a married man asked for my number and I laughed and said “Nah, we are both married. Have a great flight!” and he sneered and said “You’re the one who sat next to me, b**ch.”

    As for OP, I would ask Emma how she wants it handled. Even if you tell Ryan that Emma isn’t interested and that he should stop texting her, she could still be uncomfortable.

    1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      Holy entitled delusions, Batman! Now buying a plane ticket signs you up for dates? So sorry you had to deal with that.

      1. Noblepower*

        Right? gee, how dare she take an available seat if she didn’t want to start an affair with a random stranger? It’s exhausting.

        1. BellyButton*

          I’ve been traveling a bunch lately- about every 2 weeks since June. I have been hit on either on the flight, at the airport bar, or at the hotel restaurant/bar at least once on every trip. It is so exhausting! truthfully, I find the older I get the more aggressive the men my age have gotten. It wasn’t this bad when I was in my 20s.

          1. Former Young Lady*

            I’m in my 40s as well, and I wonder about this. On the one hand, I’m now blissfully invisible to a certain kind of middle-aged creep who seemed to be EVERYWHERE when I was 25.

            On the other hand, so many guys of all ages are high on aggrieved entitlement now. It seems they’ll fly off the handle no matter how gently you let them down.

            If you’re willing to answer: have you noticed any common threads among these guys (apart from age demographics)?

            1. BellyButton*

              Mostly 45-55, married, white, and they appear to be well off. Men of color and the younger men are much more respectful and a lot less aggressive.

              (AHHH to have the confidence of mediocre white men)

    2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Weirdly, I have never had any memorable issues from telling guys no initially. The assholes I’ve known have always waited to show their true colors until after we were involved, and in one case he managed to keep it pretty on the down-low through a year of dating and three years of cohabitating until we were married.

      1. Former Young Lady*

        Interesting. I’ve had men fly into violent rages because I didn’t smile on command, or because I got up from the bench when they plunked down next to me. Maybe this isn’t the norm everywhere, but it is absolutely my experience in the Intermountain West.

        On the other hand, I’ve never gotten involved with a latent monster. I’m sorry you went through that.

        1. londonedit*

          I once had a man slow his car down to drive alongside me as I was walking home, then when I ignored him and kept walking he started screaming abuse at me and said he was going to follow me home so he’d know where I lived. I once had a man follow me around the supermarket, ask for my number, call me a stuck-up b**** when I said no, and then continue to follow me until I dumped my basket and tried to get out of the shop without him seeing where I was going. I once had months and months of an employee at my local train station skirting the line of uncomfortable/inappropriate, including coming up to me while I was waiting for a train and asking me if I was married, saying ‘I’ve been watching you and I’ve never seen a ring on your finger’. That was the station I had to use every day going to and from work. I’ve also had a man follow me up the road in broad daylight when I was on my way home from meeting a friend for coffee, saying disgusting things as he went. Thankfully he got bored because I wasn’t really sure what a good solution would have been – let him follow me all the way home so he’d know where I lived? Take a different route and risk ending up on a quiet street with him? It doesn’t matter what we’re wearing, how old we are, how ‘attractive’ society deems us to be. There are men out there who think that women exist to please them and exist for them to treat however they wish. I’m a runner, and women all over the country – including top athletes – have shared their experiences of being harassed or followed or even attacked while out running. Thankfully I personally have never experienced actual violence, but all the instances above were violating in their own way.

    3. Warrior Princess Xena*

      I’ve yet to encounter any aggressive responses, but I also know that’s a combination of being relatively young + having a very quiet social life + being extremely lucky, and I doubt that’s the norm. And it’s happened to many of my friends.

  18. madhatter360*

    Make a “rule” that instructors aren’t allowed to provide clients with their personal contact information. Whether it’s genuinely a rule that instructors can be disciplined for, or just a “rule” that gets cited if the client asks about it at the front desk is up to you. While this can’t solve the problem that already exists instructors being able to cite this policy and blame the boss gives them a way to say no when asked for a phone number or social media handles in a safer way.

    1. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

      This is exactly what OP should do. It’s making someone else the “bad guy”. I tell my husband and my kids, they are always free to tell someone I said no if they want to get out of something, but don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

  19. londonedit*

    Alison is absolutely right about the thoughts that are likely behind Emma’s unwillingness to say something outright to Ryan. Not only that, Emma is at work, and Ryan is a client – he’s paying to use the gym, he’s paying for those classes. Her job is to provide the classes and make her clients feel comfortable and welcomed. So there’s that, and then on top of that there’s the ‘Just smile politely, don’t cause a fuss, he’s only trying to be a nice guy, I’m sure he doesn’t mean anything by it, just be nice to him’ stuff that’s piled on to women in these situations. And then there’s the fact that, as Alison said, so many women have had a man’s attitude turn on an absolute sixpence even if they have tried to ‘just smile and be nice’. It’s no wonder we’re wary.

  20. Jennifer Strange*

    While not completely the same, I work in fundraising for a non-profit theatre where there can be a power imbalance in regards to donors and artists. Some donors really want the opportunity to rub elbows with artists (not necessarily in a creepy way, but in rather the opportunity to talk to them after the show, get a selfie with them, etc.). Some of our artists have no problem with this, but some do not want to and that is their right.

    As a way of making sure our artists are not feeling pressured we make sure to tell them upfront when they start on a show that we do NOT expect them to cater to our donors and that if anyone says to them “I give [$] to the theatre” or something akin as a way of pressuring them into something they’re not comfortable with they can email our department and we will take care of it. However, we also take on the burden of communicating to our donors what is and isn’t appropriate behavior. At events where we have both donors and artists, we make sure to keep an eye on things and intervene if needed. This gives artists the knowledge of who to reach out to if they are being made uncomfortable, but also relieves them of the onus of shutting it down. We have had at least one donor who is now banned from our organization because of how they treated artists.

    Ultimately, I think you should talk to all employees about what they should do if a client makes them uncomfortable (it doesn’t have to be based on romantic feelings, it could be abusive language or making prejudiced comments), while also creating a code of conduct for anyone who uses your services.

    1. bighairnoheart*

      This is so key! Any kind of job where you interact directly with clients can be difficult for, well…a lot of reasons! More employers should do what you describe here–understand potential power imbalances, let staff know they can enforce boundaries with customers, and actually ban repeat offenders. It’s unfortunately rare. A lot of companies and workplaces like to talk up their culture (it’s fun to work here!, etc.), but imo, THE make or break thing when it comes to good culture is–Are you prioritizing the safety of your employees over your bottom line.

  21. irritable vowel*

    Emma said “yes” when she didn’t want to because she was under duress – the duress of wanting to provide good customer service without knowledge in advance that she was empowered to say “no.” Consider this a learning experience, and make sure all your staff (of any gender/age) know that you support them establishing personal boundaries, and that there will be consequences for clients who don’t respect that. It’s great that Emma came to you after the fact – consider how many others may not have.

  22. JM*

    OP, I’m not sure how new to fitness studio ownership you are, but I have a friend who opened a Pilates studio some 15 years ago now, and has firm policies in place. When the client signs the general disclaimer with rules, etc., one concerns ‘hitting on’ instructors. She’s often, but not always, there and really makes it crystal clear in a very friendly way (she’s a bubbly extrovert) that this is not a pick up spot. I’m not sure if you’re having similar issues, but she encountered it as well as instructors. I saw men do it all the time. Nice guys, for the most part from what I observed, but still clueless around the protocols of hitting on women at their job.

    I’ve had more conversations than I want recently with men (did a dating podcast for a year) who are looking for all the ways they can slip in a come on. From what they tell me, they feel stymied by our ‘current culture.’ so are often looking for situations in which to approach women. At their job seems obvious in the same job for some, but customer somehow seems exempted.

    1. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

      They feel stymied by the idea that women have agency and the right to say no. Assholes.

      FYI, those are not nice guys. They are “nice guys” – they think of themselves that way, but it’s not true. They are not clueless. They think they are entitled to any woman they want. That’s not nice.

      1. bamcheeks*

        I once stood behind a guy in a queue for coffee who was complaining that his yoga teacher obviously “hated” him because she didn’t flirt back when he flirted with her, and that was unprofessional. I’m sure he thought he was a nice guy!

      2. Spearmint*

        Can we not do this please? Good men can make social mistakes, and it’s ok, they’re not monsters or entitled for not being perfect. Yes, men should generally avoid hitting on women while they’re at work, but if you’re asking men to have empathy for women it’s only fair that you have empathy for men.

        We are expected to initiate in all phases of dating. Occasionally, women will take initiative and show clear signals, but this is not common. A very common piece of reasonable, correct dating advice is to attend classes or other events to meet women. It’s very understandable how many good men who are a bit awkward or clueless might get the wrong idea and inappropriately ask out an instructor.

        The world is not black and white. Good people make mistakes all the time.

        1. bamcheeks*

          Can we not do the thing where we equate women’s fear of being hurt or killed with men’s fear of not being able to have sex?

            1. bamcheeks*

              The context here, quoting Alison, is “ a lot of women hesitate to give men a clear and direct no in a situation like this because they have experienced other men having a frighteningly bad reaction to a clear rejection. You only need to look at the news to see horrific examples of this.”

              if you say, “ if you’re asking men to have empathy for women it’s only fair that you have empathy for men”, then my assumption is that you’re drawing an equivalence between fearing being hurt or killed by men with the difficulty of not know how to initiate a sexual relationship. If that wasn’t your intent, then I am not sure what equivalence you are drawing.

        2. Lychee tea*

          How do you want Emma to determine if a guy is making a “mistake” by asking her while she is alone at work where a large chunk of her job is being nice to clients and when a guy is being calculating and potentially emotionally and/or physically dangerous?

        3. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

          I suppose it’s possible that a man might genuinely never have been told not to hit on an instructor. If those men include any friends of yours, you can be the person who tells them not to do this. (A lot of men will listen to another guy about this, but not to a woman.)

          Also, if your friend asks “but what if the instructor hits on me?” by pointing out that “I hope you’re enjoying the class” or “do you need help with that machine?” is not hitting on him.

          1. Clare*

            The instructor is only hitting on you if they independently without your prompting asked you to hang out platonically outside of work, then you became friends, then they asked if you’d like to go on a date, then during the course of the date they say something like “Wow you look really hot in that shirt”. Otherwise, they’re not hitting on you. You’re not missing an opportunity by assuming it’s just friendliness. Promise.

    2. the bat in the office popcorn machine*

      Where in their loopy train of logic is a woman’s job the best place to slip it in?? And not, say, a club or activity? Honestly very creepy that ‘job’ — where they can’t leave & have to be nice to you — is the place they don’t feel stymied.

      1. OyHiOh*

        I think – personal observation only, of course – that to the sort of man trying to slip in a come on in circumstances like Emma experienced- taking a fitness class is, for him, an “activity.” True, one that he pays for and which features a paid professional instructor, but because he decided to show up, count as an “activity.” Now I (a middle age cis female) hear “at a club or activity” and mentally fill in “meet people who are participating in the activity as peers, not as instructors, employees, or leaders.” My suspicion is that guys like this, in addition to willfully misunderstanding the context of “meet people at a club or activity,” are also denigrating the paid professional work of female instructors.

        1. the bat in the office popcorn machine*

          I can see it and hear what you’re saying, but I think we’re on the same page that this is loopy logic. She’s not a participant. She’s an instructor/employee. While I don’t encourage he bother his classmates, they would be more reasonable to approach than the person who works there to me.

    3. NaoNao*

      I actually think it’s a fair question for men to ask “where is the place women feel comfortable and open to being approached” because this is a bit of a blind spot in terms of the conversation. Modern gender role and interaction discussion has focused more on limited unpleasant and inappropriate contact and less on what we DO want, somewhat to the detriment of the movement and overall impact.

      I would say to those men that the first place to look for dates is on a dating site or with a matchmaker. The second would be in a friend group where the man explicitly asks to be set up with a willing and interested partner. The third would be at casual social mixers–parties, events, concerts, clubs, bars, festivals–things like that. Places where the *focus* is on being social and a man approaching a woman is not jarring, scary, or involves an uneven power dynamic.

      The thing is, those three options mean that the male half has to *do work* to go out of his way and break his day to day patterns or make time and space for dating as a discrete activity, whereas hitting on baristas can be part of his morning commute. So that’s the “catch” is that they have to step up the game considerably.

      1. Clare*

        Better alternative: make friends with women in the exact same ways and places you make friends with men. Make the same number of female friends as you have male friends. Make friends with women who have partners. Make friends with lesbians. Approach your initial social interactions with women as “I could get a cool friend out of this”. Fully intend to remain friends with the cool women you meet for life. Then, maybe one of your friendships will blossom into something more, or your good friend of 4 years’ sister will see you being a good friend to her and develop a crush, or one of your female friends will introduce you to her colleague who’s been looking for ‘an actually decent guy’ (she know you’re even better than that, what a catch). Or maybe not. But you’ll never be starved of female companionship and affection. At worst you double your pool of potential friends, why pass that up?

        I deeply love all my male friends. They’re my brothers and good people. When one of my friends started dating his current partner, she was coming off the back of a couple of bad relationships and was very timid about the whole dating thing. My friends was also briefly my roomate and I vouched for his safety. They’re still happily together 8 years later. I intentionally take candid photos of my male friends doing stuff with myself and my pets because I know they’re green flags for an online dating profile, and I don’t even know if some of them have an online dating profile. But if they do, they can use them. With different friends I play board games, go camping, watch movies, discuss history etc. I sent one of them an online job posting the other day. It turned out a rep for that company was at his workplace the day after and he was able to ask them about it.

        I’d strongly advise men to make friends with lots of women for all the other benefits that come of having friends. But as an added bonus the odds of finding a girlfriend increase and they don’t have to do any work whatsoever. They can just keep interacting with all their potential friends in exactly the same way as they always have done.

        1. IneffableBastard*

          I agree. Often men do not think of befriending women for the sake of just making friends. I wonder if they see them as human beings, to be honest. I have friends from all gender spectrum and I love them all.

  23. Exhausted Electricity*

    I’ve had a few (now ex) friends that I trusted, who literally threatened me and became terrifyingly irrational after I turned them down, and I had known them for years. If this were a client who I did not know personally, I would probably also not be willing to give a firm flat no since I do not know if they’ll take the no, or become violent.

    I’m now in a job where I occasionally have to interact with the public and I have a go to story to head that kind of stuff off at the pass. (I’m engaged/married/oh I won’t be back this way it’s just a part of my scope). If Emma were writing in I’d tell her to get a cover story herself. LW, she came to you to tell you he was making her uncomfortable.

    Can you ask Emma what kind of escalation she’d be ok with you doing, i.e., “Dating clients is against company policy so please don’t harass the employees outside of work,” or is just moving the classes she teaches enough to make her feel safe?

    1. lychee tea*

      Getting girlfriend-zoned is the worst. I’ve been told that because they put in the work of being my friend, that at the bare minimum I owe them a date.

      1. Clare*

        These kinds of stories make me so sad. Lots of women want to be friends with men because friendship is just good. I don’t care what your chromosomes are. If you’re fun, I wanna hang out. Take that as the compliment it’s meant to be.

        I’m sorry your old friends were such idiots, lychee tea.

  24. Former Retail Lifer*

    I’ve had to step in a few times over the years when a customer made an employee uncomfortable. It’s my employee, in the place I manage, with a customer who is patronizing the business we both work at. It’s a work issue, not an interpersonal issue, especially when there are men out there that will not back off peacefully. If Emma doesn’t want the confrontation (which could be embarrassing for her or maybe she’s afraid of the outcome) and Ryan doesn’t do anything worthy of a ban, then you can be a good boss and do everything you can to minimize their interactions. Switching her to a different class was a good start. Call her over and tell her you need something if he starts chatting her up, or come over and insert yourself into the conversation. He’ll most likely either eventually take the hint or escalate and get himself banned. Creepy guys are a reality of working in customer service, but that doesn’t mean employees should be left to fend for themselves.

  25. ENFP in Texas*

    If Emma enjoyed doing the morning class, it’s really unfortunate that she was asked to give that up because a client was harassing her. Especially if it affected her paycheck. Even if “Ryan had never been disrespectful or threatening”, he was making her uncomfortable enough that she didn’t want to be one-on-one with him.

    I wish the OP had offered to monitor the morning class for a while to see his behavior, and guide this “nice guy” that she knows away from spending extra time with her – escorting Emma to a meeting after class so he couldnt “linger”, or addressing Ryan if he was pushing past boundaries. Being present in the room and not leaving Emma to handle him alone gives Emma support and safety so Emma can tell him “no” directly. And as the owner, the OP needs to support and protect her instructors from clientele if needed.

    The OP shouldn’t tell Emma that Emma has a RESPONSIBILITY to give him an unequivocal no, but she should make it clear that she will SUPPORT Emma if she chooses to give him one by being there and making it safe for her to do so.

    Also, Emma should block him on social media and not respond to ANY of his texts – if he has any questions related to the studio, the OP should tell him to direct them to her, not Emma. Emma needs to be nothing more than an instructor and have a strictly professional relationship with him.

    1. mlem*

      Sadly, I don’t think monitoring would have worked. “What’s wrong? He’s so polite and friendly when I’m here. I’m sure he’s just awkward. He doesn’t *mean* to make you uncomfortable. Why don’t you want to be friendly back? Why are you choosing to be uncomfortable when he clearly means well?” And so on. It’s so, so exhaustingly common.

      1. BellyButton*

        Even as women we are trained to make excuses for and defend the men. GAH!

        I do see hope that this will end — my HS aged nieces and nephews are so much more aware of things like this, of not making people feel uncomfortable, bodily autonomy, and consent.

      2. can't think of a name*

        Assuming OP actually listens to Allison/us and doesn’t further victim-blame Emma, maybe visibly monitoring the class would send a signal to Ryan? Some “nice guys” act extremely differently when another man is involved.

      3. umami*

        Yeah, I hope OP can realize you should always back up your staff member when they say someone is making them uncomfortable. Take it a a fact, and do whatever needed to ensure your employee is and feels safe. Acknowledge that people behave differently in front of people with authority, so your personal interactions/observations are irrelevant.

    2. 1-800-BrownCow*

      Yes, I was disappointed to read that OP had handled the morning class situation differently. “Because a client hit on you and we don’t want to make our client unhappy and lose their business, we’ll instead change YOUR work schedule for our convenience.” That’s essentially how I took it. Maybe Emma doesn’t mind or prefers her new schedule. But if she liked having the morning time slot, next time she might hesitate to speak up because she doesn’t want to have to change her work schedule just to avoid clients. When I was a college student, I spent an entire summer internship being sexually harassed by a coworker 40+ years my senior. He would comment on my body, looks, and things he wouldn’t mind doing to me if he had the chance, all in front of other men in the department (I work in a male dominant field, so no other women were in the department). I hated it but never complained to HR because I was told by a couple people at the company that if I made a complaint, since I was just a summer intern, I would probably be let go by the company. The internship paid well and I needed the job to pay for college. So in order to not get screwed over by a job, I instead kept my mouth shut and endured being sexually harassed. This is over 20 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday,

      1. Pippa K*

        I had two senior colleagues who did similar things when I was an assistant professor (untenured). They stopped the very instant I got tenure.

        These dudes know exactly what they’re doing, they are very fine judges of situational power dynamics, and nothing sends me into a cynical rage faster than the all-too-common claim that “he didn’t realize” or “he was just being friendly.” I’m sorry you were treated like that in an internship – and with no help from people who could see what was going on!

    3. Rose*

      I do think LW handled this horribly and is being unacceptably dense about the reality of the situation, but I was torn on this piece. If the class is usually just Emma and Ryan, I can’t imagine a good path forward where she’s still teaching the class.

      It seems like this isn’t a good class time to offer period the class regularly has one or two people in it, unless this is a super boutique situation where class sizes are generally tiny.

  26. nopetopus*

    I *just* yesterday had to explain to an older male coworker why some women will give out their number but not respond later. I really had to spell out that it’s because of fear for our safety. It’s feels safer to give the number, get out of there, and then never respond/block them and just play dumb if the man tries to bring it up.

    Here’s the thing: if this guy was attuned to not being a creeper, he wouldn’t ask me while I’m working. If he just HAD TO express interest, he would leave me a paper with HIS number so that *I* could reach out if it was mutual. But the simple act of asking me while I’m on the clock and he’s a customer and there’s less ability to me to respond how I actually would want to for fear of getting fired, automatically means that he’s not a safe person. Or not aware of how women have to think about protecting themselves in this world, so might react badly to boundaries I put in place around that.

    1. BellyButton*

      UGGG. I usually respond to questions like that with “Do you think twice about parking next to a van?”
      “Do you check the backseat of your car before getting in?”
      “Do you send a screenshot of the Uber/Lyft driver to friend in case something happens?”
      “Are you afraid to wear headphones when you run or walk outside for fear you won’t hear someone approach you?”
      “have you ever had someone hit on you and when you reject them they call you names or try to grab you?”

      Yeah– these are things every woman does.

      1. Alpacas Are Not Dairy Animals*

        To the extent that realizing that I don’t do those things was part of my process of figuring out that I’m not a woman, no matter what my birth certificate says.

        1. TechWorker*

          To be fair I am a woman and do none of these things (probably just lucky to live in reasonably safe area). But yes lots of women do do them.

    2. random trans dude*

      As a transmasc (relevant because I’ve lived as a woman and still look like one and have thus experienced the things everyone is discussing in these comments) guy, I’ve thought about leaving my number for waitresses/waiters I’ve thought were cute, and still felt bad/decided not to do it. I know for me, even being left someone’s number might make me uncomfortable (what if they come back? just knowing someone was into me like that is complicated due to trauma). It’s definitely the best way to handle it and I’m not trying to discourage anyone from doing it, but it goes to show there is a drastic difference in how women/ex-women and men who have always been men think when it comes to these things.

      1. nopetopus*

        Thank you for weighing in! Your perspective is unique and I’m appreciate you sharing it.

        To me, someone leaving their number in that way would signal to me that they are a safer person. They didn’t want to put me on the spot, didn’t make me stop working in order to express interest (possibly costing me money), and respected my autonomy/agency enough to allow me to contact them first if the feeling was mutual. Even in I wasn’t into a person, I wouldn’t feel weird about them going forward.

        But like you mention not all people would feel the same as I would, for a variety of reasons. It’s tricky.

    3. Office Skeptic*

      I have never understood why so many men don’t seem to understand this. I understand the experiences and boundaries of people that have very different lives from me. For example, I don’t use a wheelchair, never have, but totally understand why wheelchair riders don’t want some person touching or pushing their chair without permission. Men are smart. They have imagination. Why can’t they get this?

      1. Still mad about it*

        You’d think.

        For instance, my coworkers are all very committed to equity and access.

        When I broke my leg and had to get around on crutches, a surprising number of them let doors close behind them instead of holding them for me, saw me struggle into the bathroom and push ahead to the accessible stall…

        When I explained how to make powerpoints accessible to students with visual disabilities (I have a kid with this disability), they kept “forgetting”

        When I had to use a walker for some months, all the work related social outings were completely undoable by anyone with a physical disability.

        These are people who **know**

        Now, I had no problem calling out every single instance — privately at first, then loudly when it continued, which is what it took for people to “remember”.

      2. Jaunty Banana Hat I*

        Many people are very bad at thinking beyond what their own experience is. There is a massive lack of empathy, and also, it can involve emotional labor that some people just have never been expected to do. Or people are distracted by their own unique issues.

        Pre-Covid, my husband always, always preferred going inside a fast food restaurant to order take-out. For him, it was because he felt less stressed ordering inside because he had more time to look at the menu, and could let people skip ahead in line if he wasn’t ready. When I pointed out how much safer it was for me to do the drive-thru instead of parking and physically walking inside, he said that had never occurred to him (like the menu thing hadn’t really occurred to me). And he’s usually decent at picking up on that kind of thing!

        1. allathian*

          To be fair, I’m a woman and I’ve worked in fast food places as a teen and young adult, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me, either…

      3. Chirpy*

        Honestly, I blame the fact they’ve never been taught to take others into account, plus society’s insistence that men only like “manly” things- which means they also didn’t grow up reading books/ watching movies or shows with female protagonists or that dealt with women’s (or nonbinary, etc) issues or perspectives. They’ve never *had* to imagine this.

  27. She of Many Hats*

    I would make a formal statement to ALL employees that they do not need to and/or should not give out their personal contact info to clients when asked in their role as representatives of the organization. Have them provide the organization’s phone number if they need to give one out. (even better if there are multiple locations and the trainer can use location B’s number instead of location A).

    You may want to develop a policy for employees about interactions with clients outside of the instructor/client role. It can provide a safe “out” in situations like this.

    But, yeah, the amount of risk assessment that women process minute by minute in their day is completely foreign to most men.

  28. 123*

    LW… actually I would argue it is your responsibility if an instructor is made uncomfortable by the advances of a client to ensure the client knows the policy to not hit on employees.

  29. NewJobNewGal*

    I think the LetterWriter is missing that because someone is a fitness instructor doesn’t mean they automatically are able to handle every awkward social interaction. You need to train your staff on how to handle a variety of situations so they are prepared. You can’t expect them to ‘just know’ what to do.

    1. allathian*

      Yes, this.

      And definitely initiate a policy about interactions with clients outside of the instructor/client role.

  30. Circus Monkey*

    She could have given the number of the fitness studio [her workplace] because while she is at work that is her number….though none of this is due to anything Emma did.

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      I know you acknowledge that Emma didn’t do anything wrong, but the problem with giving a fake (or different) number is the person will usually text you right away to check.

      1. bamcheeks*

        …which is an absolute gold-star sign that they want to push past your boundaries and coerce you into some kind of contact.

        1. Warrior Princess Xena*

          Yup, while it’s not helpful in the moment (because violence may also follow), that automatically takes it from “orange flag from asking me in a workplace setting” to “red flag covered in bees, bananas imminent, disengage as fast as possible”.

  31. The Rafters*

    What jumped out at me was the comment that Ryan is “socially awkward.” How many men (and women for that matter) have used that excuse to behave inappropriately? OP, you are the business owner and boss. This is on you to fix it, not your employee.

    1. Kat*

      He gets a pass for being young, nice, socially awkward. Emma is also young and has handled this in a ‘nice’ way, with soft no’s (for all the excellent and very true reasons in the rest of the thread)…but instead of getting a pass on her behaviour, her manager is frustrated with her for not handling it the way the (presumably older and definitely more powerful) manager would.

      I dealt with this crap 20 years ago and my late teens niece deals with it now and I am So Tired.

  32. Dom*

    On this feels horrifically relevant today. Here in the UK one of the main headlines today is the killing of a 15 year old girl. :-( It appears that she rejected flowers from 17 year old and told him she didn’t want to go out with him any more, which he responded to by slashing her throat. So anyone saying “she should have just said no”, including the letter writer – get your head out of your arse and take a look at the world. :-(

    1. Good Enough For Government Work*

      Came here to reference this case. LITERALLY THIS MORNING this happened.

      No fcking WONDER young women are deeply cautious about turning down advances from men.

    2. mcm*

      yes, was thinking about this the whole letter. Anyone saying that women should just be more confident saying no feels willfully ignorant at this point.

  33. HannahS*

    You should incorporate some teaching about boundaries in your orientation for employees. A lot of women who work in “helping” professions–counsellors, social workers, and many others–often have to navigate situations like this. With time, experience, coaching, and practice, it becomes easier to say things like, “Oh, thanks, but it’s our policy not to connect with clients outside of work. Thanks for understanding.” It sounds like Emma didn’t know that this was an option, and she felt anywhere from uncomfortable to unsafe when Ryan crossed an interpersonal boundary when they were alone, so she did what felt safest, quickest, and easiest in the moment.

    A few points to consider: we don’t know what Emma’s experience is; it’s not fair to assume that something that seems easy or obvious would be obvious or feel easy to her. Ryan may be non-threatening to you, but he may not be non-threatening to Emma.

    1. Washi*

      I’m a social worker and totally agree. It’s a very standard part of our training and every job orientation I’ve had spells out what is ok and what would cross professional boundaries. I don’t give a second thought to telling people I can’t give out my cell phone number and politely declining to share certain personal details because it’s constantly talked about as a hazard of this job no matter how professional you are, and I know my supervisor will back me up. And I’ve gotten better at it over time, much better than when I was in college and still a student with the mindset of doing that people tell me to!

      I hope this can be a learning experience to help train your employees and also have their back when something like this comes up. (And blaming the employee for creating an “interpersonal issue” is not having their back.)

  34. Jaina Solo*

    LW should heed everything Alison said, but this is also a great opportunity to implement some harassment training. There’s lots of places that have good training on that, and it’s helpful for employees to understand what they should be bringing up from interactions with coworkers or clients. In my 20s, I had uncomfortable interactions with coworkers and clients and didn’t fully understand how they should have been handled and what my employer was responsible for. This is a great opportunity to get everyone on the same page, and LW can also provide a reference sheet of how that’s applied there. (i.e. Say that company policy is to not share personal contact details if someone asks, etc.)

    LW also needs to step in with Ryan now. Let him know that he’s welcome to continue coming to class, but trainers are there to conduct class and not become friends. Specifically, he needs to stop contacting Emma via personal communication methods like texting or social media.

  35. The Shenanigans*

    “he’s a nice guy in his early 20’s and a bit socially awkward.”

    No, he’s not. He’s using that character as a cover to be creepy to women. This specific phrase in these specific words is SO commonly used to describe manipulative men who push boundaries that I knew exactly what he’d done before I finished reading. If I see someone described this way, I immediately swipe/block the person. There is never, ever an actually friendly if shy guy who is described in these words. I urge the OP to do some reading on women and male attention. There’s a ton of information out there. Start with The Mary Sue, Captain Awkward, #metoo tagged posts, BuzzFeed often has good lists of dating horror stories. Keep track of the number of men in these stories that are described as “nice” and “socially awkward”. The upshot is none of this is on her, all of it is on him. Fire the client and protect your staff.

    *I don’t know the OP’s gender, and I’m not assuming male. Women can be just as crappy about this in my experience.

    1. Pikachu*

      Also, being “nice” is like the bare minimum qualification for existing in society. It takes literally nothing to be nice. It’s meaningless. Do we really have to go on a date with someone because they don’t openly berate people, shout racial slurs, cut ahead in line, steal things and make children cry on their birthdays? Like how low are we really setting this bar? LOL

    2. jellied brains*

      Yeah. My dad is socially awkward. How does this manifest? Stumbling over words and avoiding eye contact with people he doesn’t know very well or keeping the conversation very brief because he’s so uncomfortable.

      What doesn’t he do? Hit on people. I’m pretty sure it was my mom who asked him out.

      1. Warrior Princess Xena*

        *I* am socially awkward. It manifests as word-vomit and excessive giggling. If someone told me that I was coming across as flirty/hitting on people I think I would die of mortification. It takes *nerve* to walk up to a relative stranger and ask for their number (not normally correlated with social awkwardness).

    3. Yikes Stripes*

      I am the most socially awkward social butterfly you’ll ever meet – I’m extremely extroverted and love making friends, and I’m extremely good at doing that to the point where I’ve somehow accidentally forged long standing friendships with people I sat next to at hockey games or stood in line with waiting to get into a concert. I’m talking friendships where I’m invited to weddings with fewer than fifty attendees and fifteen years later their kids call me Aunt Yikes.

      I’ve also got a terminal case of not being able to tell when I’m being flirted with *or* knowing when people are taking me being cheerful and chatty and friendly as me being flirty. I recently was at a minor league baseball game and spent half the (kind of extremely long no runs) game talking to a guy and his daughter about sports, and when his wife showed up after a couple of innings I was extremely happy to include her in the conversation – but, when he took their kid to get a snack, she point blank told me that she was his wife. I stared at her blankly and then said something along the lines of “Yeah, I know? He told me that his wife was running late at work — oh my god, no, I’m sorry, I wasn’t hitting on him, I’m *married*. To a *woman*. Who just isn’t here because she hates baseball.” I was *mortified* and felt sick that this poor woman had been sitting there watching me apparently hit on her husband right in front of her.

      That story has a happy ending – I’m a season ticket holder for our local minor league hockey team and they’re taking my tickets for a couple of games I can’t make it to next month – BUT the thing is that nice people who are socially awkward are horrified and embarrassed when they figure out that they’ve misread the situation or their actions are being misread. They don’t push boundaries and then keep pushing them when their initial attempts aren’t getting the reactions that they want. Those people aren’t nice people who are socially awkward, they’re just dicks.

  36. Yes Anastasia*

    Every workplace with a customer service component should have policies and procedures around harassment and unwanted romantic attention, so that every employee knows that they’ll be supported if they do give a firm no and can loop in a supervisor if they don’t feel comfortable addressing the situation alone. I really like the idea of addressing this in your code of conduct policy.

    I especially don’t love that Emma felt pressured to engage with this guy due to teaching the class alone – what safety measures are in place to protect employees who are working with clients one-on one? I imagine best practices would include access to a comm system, windows to ensure line of sight, etc.

  37. AnotherSarah*

    Thinking about the future, would it make sense to have a policy in place to NOT give out personal info to clients? I’d guess this employee was partially worried about angering a client but really, they probably shouldn’t be dating a client from the perspective of the business.

  38. The Rafters*

    I forgot to add, if you are in the US, most if not all states have anti-sexual harassment laws that apply to the employer AND the client. The employer has a legal responsibility to deal with the client, not leave it up to the employee to handle it. Keep forcing your employees to do your job for you OP, and you will eventually have a lawsuit on your hands.

  39. Mermaid of the Lunacy*

    Could there be a policy that there are to be no one-on-one classes and if only one person shows up for a class, another instructor will join the class and if another instructor is not available, that class gets canceled?

    1. mcm*

      or maybe just cancel classes with only one person — you can say that it’s not financially worth it to offer “discounted private classes” like this

  40. Decima Dewey*

    From the letter: “I know this client; he’s a nice guy in his early 20’s and a bit socially awkward.”

    Just because Ryan is a nice guy to OP, it does not follow that he’s a nice guy to Emma (or other people at the gym. It also suggests to me a bias in Ryan’s favor on OP’s part.

  41. Anon in Canada*

    Banning Ryan from attending Emma’s lessons would be 100% reasonable. Ryan crossed a pretty big boundary by asking an employee for her personal phone number on the workplace’s premises while the employee was on shift. This is 100% bannable behavior, and while LW could choose to only ban him from Emma’s lessons and not from the business in general, I wouldn’t fault the business owner from banning him completely.

    No way should this result in Emma’s workplace duties being changed (such as removing her from being the instructor of the morning lesson).

    Yes, she could have said no to giving her number or given the studio’s number, but in the spur of the moment she didn’t think of those options. And yes, she could tell him a clear no now… but the business owner contacting Ryan and telling him he’s being banned from Emma’s lessons, or banned altogether, would be an extremely clear way of telling him Emma is not interested.

  42. Peanut Hamper*

    Just from a business standpoint, how do you manage to have a class with only one student in it? How is that even profitable?

    Maybe going forward…

    1) As others have said, make it a policy that employees are not allowed to give out personal information to customers. And make sure customers are aware of it.

    2) Provide training about this situation, so other people will be prepared for an awkward situation like this. This is not the last time a customer will ask an instructor for personal information, I’m sure. And it will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

    3) Ensure that there is more than one student in a class, and hopefully a mixture of males and females at the very least. (Unless, of course, it is an all-women class.)

    1. londonedit*

      To your first point, I’m imagining the sort of thing where your gym membership covers classes, so the classes run anyway and clients drop in if they want to do the class that’s on at that particular time. I think something the OP could definitely look at would be a policy of classes needing a minimum of two clients participating in order to run, with some sort of sign-up system and the understanding that if it turns out only one client turns up, the class will be cancelled.

    2. I'm just here for the cats!!*

      I was wondering that too, unless there is some sort of monthly membership and the class is a drop in type of thing, so it doesn’t matter if 1 person or 20 show up the class still runs.

  43. Pikachu*

    > Do I tell Ryan discreetly that Emma has a boyfriend? (A true but immaterial fact.)

    PLEASE do not do this. It doesn’t matter that it’s true. Ryan is a STRANGER. Strangers are not entitled to the details of ANYONE’S personal life ever. No means no.

    Emma doesn’t need to have a boyfriend to reject anyone for any reason.

    In fact, nobody needs to already be in a romantic relationship to reject anyone for any reason. Nobody is entitled to a date from anyone just because they are single. Nobody is entitled to anyone’s time, no matter how nice they are. Nobody owes someone a date just because they are a nice guy. I want to vomit just thinking about how normalized this nonsense is.

    Not to mention, some men will *absolutely* treat “I have a boyfriend” as a challenge, not a rejection.

    1. Anon in Canada*

      At least, don’t tell Ryan that without Emma’s consent.

      But even if Emma were to consent to it, this is not a good way of resolving the situation by any stretch of imagination.

    2. Sarahnova*

      TBH, among other good advice already given, what jumped out to me was that the gym should already have a policy that a class doesn’t go ahead if there is just one attendee, for the purposes of safeguarding all concerned.

    3. bamcheeks*

      The old “men will respect a man who may not even exist more than they’ll respect the woman in front of them” gambit.

    4. Ganymede*

      Or if they later were to hear that Emma had broken up with her bf, they’ll potentially think it’s ok to try again.

    5. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

      And also, Emma is not the only employee. Is it okay to harrass the single female employees? No? Then it doesn’t matter that Emma has a boyfriend.

    6. allathian*

      Yes, using a boyfriend (real or imaginary) as a soft no in social situations may or may not work. But in customer service jobs, a more effective approach would be an anti-harassment policy that is clear and unequivocal and with genuine consequences for unacceptable behavior, such as showing romantic interest in an employee by asking for their personal phone number. Equally crucial is informing employees of this policy, and most crucial of all is actually enforcing this policy if it becomes necessary, up to and including banning customers from the premises when they break it.

  44. 867-5309*

    Women with far more experience have trouble declining a client or coworker, so this likely a very new experience for Emma. While of course we would like it if women could just “say no,” most are not conditioned to do so with the added elements of fear and uncomfortableness Alison mentioned above. You should have first asked and helped coach her on how to say no and then yes, offered to step in if she was not sure how to handle the situation. This is especially true given her young age.

  45. Aquamarine*

    At 22, I definitely would have had trouble saying no simply because I hate awkward interactions. Actually, I probably would still have trouble with it, it’s just that this doesn’t happen to me anymore.

    I think encouraging employees to feel free to tell clients there’s a policy preventing them from socializing with clients is a good idea – it’s helpful to have an response ready in a situation like that.

    1. Becca*

      Yes this. In addition to an explicit rule banning employee-client relationships (which protects everyone from a myriad of potential problems I think it would be sensible to keep an eye on class numbers. If a class is only ever attracting one client it doesn’t seem to be worth running to me, let alone the safety issues of having a member of staff regularly alone with a client.

  46. Witchy Season*

    Man people are being really harsh on the LW. I don’t think she did anything terribly wrong and I understand her logic on where the fault lies in this situation. I agree you cannot tell the instructor she needs to shut this down, that is for her to decide. Suggesting she sit in on her classes to monitor things seems unrealistic, she still has a business to run. This guy has done nothing egregious to warrant a police escort.

    I feel like both the LW and instructor handled things as pragmatically as they could. The LW seems willing to speak with the gentleman herself, so it seems like offering to shut this down would be best. It seems from both LW and instructor that no one feels this guy has been threatening to be so nervous of a polite rejection. Perhaps if the instructor agrees the LW could just speak with the client in a “X asked me for advice on how to handle a personal interaction with one of our clients and I let her know that we ask our clients to not contact staff on personal matters at work or outside work. We would appreciate you respecting that boundary.”

    1. Anon in Canada*

      He’s done nothing to warrant calling the cops, but his behavior is more than enough to justify banning him from Emma’s classes. No way should Emma’s schedule be altered to work around Ryan.

    2. bamcheeks*

      It’s worth reading the comments here and working out why your approach to this is so significantly out of step with the others. What experiences might we all have had that you haven’t had that makes our take on this the opposite of yours?

      1. Witchy Season*

        I don’t really feel like I am out of step. I am not advocating for her to do nothing, or that the instructor should accept his advances.
        I am just saying I don’t think anyone’s actions here were completely incorrect and sometimes we have situations at work or personal that are uncomfortable and stink, Karen’s to deal with, abusive bosses and we all have to navigate those as best we can.

        It seemed like all the comments were just telling the LW she was wrong and to ban the individual. I think if they let him know he should no longer contact instructor and he continues to do so, then he should be banned.

        We all understand why she gave her number out in the moment. But no one seems to have any empathy for the LW navigating (presumably) a new situation for herself.

        1. bamcheeks*

          I am not sure why LW needs empathy: they aren’t in a difficult, dangerous or upsetting situation, they’ve asked two very clear questions — is my approach the right one, and if not, why not– and is getting a clear answer. They are being told they should be taking more responsibility for the situation because they are the manager and that is the job of being the manager.

        2. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

          RYAN’s actions were completely incorrect.
          The LW incorrectly thought the only problem was Emma not being direct enough rather than Ryan hitting on her in the first place.
          The LW also incorrectly thought this was an interpersonal problem, failing to see that is a workplace problem; therefore, their solutions were all wrong.

          The LW does not necessarily need to ban Ryan, but they do need to see their framing of the situation is wrong so that they can solve the actual problem they have.

      2. Pyjamas*

        We might have experience with setting boundaries, a skill Emma will need to learn sooner or later. She’s 22, not an infant. Yes, LW needed to intervene when Emma came for help. It sounds like she did, and is willing to do more. If Emma is dissatisfied with the solution, if for instance she wants the early morning class, she needs to tell LW so.

        Y’all seem to be punishing LW not for her actions but for thought crimes. If she were such a horrible insensitive manager, would she have written for advice?

      3. Not my coffee*

        I am trying to follow the comment and the responses. They strike me as disjointed.

        A discussion before calling the police or outright banning does not seem unreasonable. My wording would be less wordy. I’ve seen a few well phrased rules in the comment that could be instituted by LW.

    3. Hannah Lee*

      “… and I understand her logic on where the fault lies in this situation.”

      As Alison points out, her logic is faulty.

      It does not take into account the historical and current lived experience of people who have experienced, unsettling, threatening and even dangerous responses when they politely decline a man’s advances/interest. Sure, I can “understand OP’s logic on where fault lies” (including Emma) Just like I can understand the logic of claiming that 1 + 1 + 2 = 3, when you just ignore one of the 1’s.

      Plus it’s OP’s business, OP’s premises, OP’s client list, OP’s class schedule and OP’s class sign up protocols. So while the fault may not lie with OP (although their SOP’s set up the situation for this to happen in the first place and for Emma to be unsure of how to handle it) the responsibility is *absolutely* on OP to make sure it does not continue and does not happen again to Emma or any other of OP’s employees.

    4. umami*

      One thing I would point out is that OP is reporting what Emma thought *after* talking to her about the interaction(s). IOW, OP essentially quizzed her to find out just how egregious the behavior was (did he threaten you? was he disrespectful?) instead of just supporting her when she said his behavior made her uncomfortable. By asking those questions, OP could have easily been reframing the interaction in Emma’s mind as not so bad because he wasn’t necessarily *threatening* or disrespectful*. That’s actually not very helpful and certainly not very insightful.

  47. Ugh*

    There have been so many letters from owners/bosses/CEOs assuming employees need to sort out issues themselves, as opposed to the person whose title, pay, and responsibility makes them the issue-solver.

    You set the tone for your company. You are responsible for a safe work space. You are the pay-grade that has to do this hard, necessary, issue-solving work. Please stop washing your hands of these situations and do the thing expected of you.

    1. glt on wry*

      All of the vet clinics that I use have their clearly worded policies about not tolerating harassment of staff posted in highly visible areas in the reception area. Wondering if this could be a step to help check client behaviour.

    2. Sparkles McFadden*

      So many managers classify things like this as “personality conflicts” or “interpersonal issues” and just ignore it. But…a manager is managing humans who are there together because that’s what the job requires, so, yes, this is definitely a workplace issue. This is especially true in this case where one person is an employee and another is a client.

      Please, LW, come up with some policies and do some training with the staff on how to handle these issues. Many of them will be relieved to know you have their back because that’s often not the case. I guarantee part of Emma’s reluctance to be more direct is that her employment will be affected if the client is upset. That’s already happened because she needs to change her schedule because of the client’s behavior.

  48. No*

    Emma has denied Ryan’s requests to connect on social media and is ignoring his texts unless they are related to her work…those all seem pretty straightforward cues to me!

    1. Huh?*

      Not really. I don’t respond to social media and texts all the time without it being A Point. I forget to respond, I talked to them in person, I didn’t see it, I’ll respond in a week or two, I’m not on social media like that, I didn’t see the request. I have sent out requests that I forgot about and never felt a way about that. Not everyone is as plugged in to tech like that, and it doesn’t even register if someone didn’t accept my requests. I would assume they aren’t active, or any of the other things mentioned above. Inaction is not a straightforward cue or response.

      1. Beth*

        Both your and Emma’s behavior is a really clear cue that you’re not going to socialize online. Ryan should be able to pick up on that cue.

        It sounds like when you’re interested in socializing with someone in other ways, you show it by being responsive and engaging offline (e.g. in person). That makes sense, and I expect that it lets most people you interact with pick up on your “I’m not an online person but I do want to socialize with you” vibe. It sounds like Emma, in contrast, is intentionally refusing to engage in any kind of conversation with Ryan, on or offline, that doesn’t directly relate to work. Ryan should be able to pick up on that cue.

        If Ryan is so socially inept that he can’t connect “this person is refusing to talk to me about absolutely anything but work, where I am her client” to “this person doesn’t want to socialize with me outside of me being her client at work,” then frankly he needs to stop trying to romantically connect to people except he’s in a black-and-white enough situation that he’s 100% confident that they’re on the same page.

  49. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

    It’s very very hard, especially for younger women, to go from being taught by society that you HAVE to be nice to men, you must consider another person’s feelings over your own at all times, to ‘actually sod that, I’m going to stick up for myself’

    It can take a long time (or traumatic circumstances) to flip that switch.

    Leave aside all the ‘social awkwardness’ thing here, it’s not relevant. All you need to do is ask your staff member what action or words she wants you to take. Give her the power.

    To show an example of good management: when I was in my 20s there was a bloke who came into the office for a training session with me and who asked me out for a pint, I said I’m too busy (a soft no) and then he started to phone/make excuses to drop into IT and try and arrange times he knew I’d be there. I told my then boss about this and he asked me what I’d prefer. ‘Ban that guy from the IT department, he’s creeping me out’ said I and that’s what happened.

    The guy in question did try the ‘but I haven’t done anything wrong! She didn’t say she wasn’t interested in me!’ route but my boss just said he wasn’t willing to let this continue. End of. Leave Keymaster alone.

  50. MicroManagered*

    OP I think in addition to handling the issue with Ryan, you need to make it so that one employee is never there completely alone with one client like this.

    I have gone to fitness studios that manage this by having 2 employees “open” the studio (which also creates a backup if one employee is late) or require preregistration for class and class is canceled if there are not at least X number of attendees registered.

  51. Sarahnova*

    I think the gym needs to institute a polo t that classes do not go ahead on a one-attendee-only basis, for the safeguarding of both parties. this will be particularly relevant if there are any under-18s who train at the gym or attend classes. Any deliberate 1:1 PT sessions should be in a visible/attended environment like the main gym floor if possible, as well.

  52. Ari*

    I’d say by defining this as an “interpersonal issue”, you are the one trying to avoid any awkward interactions and potentially alienating a client who you think is a nice guy. They didn’t meet at a bar or in class or shopping. They met at the studio where she works, which you own. Ryan has power as a client and you have power as the owner, and it sounds like Emma didn’t know that she had any. That’s your fault. Not having clear policies in place around harassment (for both employees and clients), what that looks like, and how it should be handled is an oversight on your part. You need to make sure clients and employees understand acceptable, expected behavior at the studio.

  53. ariel*

    OP, you’ll be doing yourself, your workers, and your clients all favors if you emphasize over and over while training them and in any materials you provide (to employees or clients) that your business discourages personal relationships between instructors and clients. It gives your employees cover to reject advances and lets clients know where the line is, hopefully make it clear when someone needs to be banned for flagrantly resisting the boundary.

  54. Craig*

    Poor Emma. There are times when a decent employer will take their employee’s side, and this is one of them. I feel like Ryan needs to be fired as a client. The customer is not always right or reasonable, and your staff need to feel safe.

    For what it’s worth, I feel like a decent guy wouldn’t put Emma in this position. Even if he felt there might be some mutual attraction, he would be aware that Emma’s job depends on customers liking her. He wouldn’t proceed without *very* *clear* signals, and even then would hesitate. Being bad at social cues is no excuse. For those of us who have that problem, that just means being even more careful. He should be thinking, *I* know I’m not a threat, but *she* doesn’t. It doesn’t sound like he’s getting any signals like that, so LW is being way too understanding of Ryan when she says that Emma ‘essentially gave Ryan signals he reasonably understood as “yes” when she really meant “no”’. There’s just nothing like that here.

    The more I read this, the more angry I get, so I’m going to stop now. That’s not what we’re here for. I’ll just say that LW needs to look at this from her employer’s point of view.

  55. Looper*

    “Socially awkward” people are just as responsible for their actions as everyone else. You seem very concerned for Ryan’s feelings but not for Emma’s, and that’s something you might want to examine. As an employer, you 100% owe your employees a safe, comfortable working environment. I agree that having explicit training on handling uncomfortable clients, informing your staff of options, and centering your employees’ experience over clients’ feelings is a good place to start.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I have some social awkwardness (though I’m less shy and awkward than in my early 20s), and at this point in the 2020s I read “I have SO-cial AWK-ward-NESS!” as chanted to the tune of “neener neener neener.” Because it’s so often deployed as some sort of generic get-out-of-consequences card that means everyone else needs to shape themselves around your quirks so you feel comfortable.

      And while plenty of women claim social awkwardness as an excuse, the most frequent context seems to be “Oh dear, that male-presenting person might have social awkwardness! All female-presenting persons, get in there and soothe! Soothe!”

      1. Clare*

        In my experience, actually socially awkward people are very apologetic when they make mistakes and they take every step to avoid doing that thing again, often taking extra care to avoid stepping on any of the persons other potential boundaires for a while. People claiming social awkwardness as an excuse see that the behaviour has successfully got them attention and repeat or escalate. Someone wants to claim they’re socially awkward? Ok, show it.

        1. Yikes Stripes*

          As someone who is socially awkward in weird and exciting ways: yes, this! I’m always horrified when I make a mistake and apologize, reflect, and try not to make the same mistake again.

  56. Rules Suck*

    But they need to exist.

    So, given that you are here , and not blaming anyone since blaming someone is the worst thing anyone can do ever, you need a policy boldly stated in your sign up documents against client/instructor dating.

    Then you need to talk to Ryan and show him the policy and be ready to lose him as a client, because he’s going to see the mixed signals as unfair and be embarrassed that his benign actions engendered a need for a corporate policy.

    Then your employee going forward can just reference the policy instead of giving her number when asked.

    What a world.

  57. Office Skeptic*

    OP writes that Emma gave her number partially because she “…was aware of the fact that it was just the two of them in the space.” That right there meant she didn’t feel safe. Being alone with someone wouldn’t make you too uncomfortable to say no unless you feel unsafe. This OP seems bizarrely out of touch with the reality that so many women go through. Please look up the stats of assault, street harassment, and abuse that men commit against women. It makes sense a woman might feel unsafe.

  58. Bookworm*

    Taking a slightly different (although related) tack that some people touch upon: it sounds like your company’s culture needs to be reassessed. This is not a “well, everyone is to blame here,” as Alison says, there are reasons why Emma did not want to say no outright.

    I obviously don’t know for certain, but she may have felt saying no outright would have been a loss of a customer that would make you, LW, unhappy. There are many company cultures (and general situations!) where an Emma is expected to keep the customer as happy as possible, and that includes not saying no directly.

    I worked for someone who related how a former employee left because a client was making them uncomfortable. And apparently the employee never spoke up while it was happening. I had interpreted this as the employee just not being comfortable with bringing something like this up (it happens) but after working there I strongly suspect they left because they felt the boss wasn’t going to help or address this in any substantive way. I’m not saying that is your situation (different field), just that beyond this situation with Emma and Ryan, this also may be a larger workplace culture issue and you as an employer.

    1. I'm just here for the cats!!*

      yes! especially if Emma was afraid that Ryan might give a negative review or complain, and her job would be at risk. And if she didn’t say anything to OP and waited until after the complaint she might have thought that the OP would think she was making it up as an excuse for bad treatment of a customer.

      In fact, I think the OP needs to think of policies that will protect their workers. One idea is that if any customer asks for a workers personal contact information then they need to say they cannot give it per policy and then the employee should immediatly report that the customer asked for their information. This way if a bad review or a complaint comes in the employee has documented what happened.

  59. Angie S.*

    If I were Emma and if Ryan would end up doing something very wrong and it happened in your fitness studio, I would hire a lawyer and sue you and your business for not doing enough to protect me. Obviously, the likelihood that is ever going to happen is very small. However as a business owner I feel that this problem could be avoided without too much cost at the moment.

  60. trvh*

    LW, the first three paragraphs were explanatory, but then the rest… I’m with Alison 100%.

    Some people don’t take no for an answer, and it is a justified cause of deep dread.

    And people shouldn’t ask their instructors or other service workers for their personal info. Yikes. You’re granting way too much leeway to someone who was off base. This is NOT Emma’s fault. I hope she is being supported!

  61. HonorBox*

    As I was reading Alison’s response, all I was thinking was what she put in the final paragraph about a policy against staff and customers socializing. It doesn’t need to be something posted on the door for customers to see. Rather it can be stated to all staff that they are free to cite that policy if a customer requests phone numbers, connects on socials, etc. We have a policy internally (because of a public lobby and proximity to social services) that we are not to give money to anyone from the general public. We get asked for help getting a bus ticket, food, etc. from time to time, and staff can cite that internal policy that it is against our rules to give out money. We don’t have that posted because it isn’t something that happens too often. But I know that I’ve said it, as have others, from time to time. Giving staff an opportunity to say “that’s against company policy” gives them an easy way to say no and may not put them in a position to feel like they have to out of kindness.

  62. umami*

    You should absolutely let Emma know that she can and should tell clients that there is a workplace policy against sharing personal information with clients. As many others and Alison have mentioned, it’s very difficult for women without this experience to know where they can draw the lines when they are working with clients under such circumstances, so I hope you can reassure that she has your support in using ‘workplace policy’ as a shield moving forward. This happened at work, so it definitely involves you in how to ensure your staff feel safe and supported in the workplace.

  63. Your Social Work Friend*

    Based on one of Alison’s comments here I will assume LW is a woman and based on the letter, they clearly have a few years on Emma. It’s an interesting cross section of “as a manager I need to coach my staff to deal with how to tell clients no to things” and (in my opinion) “as a more experienced woman, I need to both protect younger women when I can and mentor in them the tools to do this on their own safely, and the courage to ask for help from other.”

    These are acts that can be taken separately and together. I would imagine your industry collects recent college grads/current students so upfront and continuous training/support for skills like saying no, protecting your personal information, etc won’t hurt. Putting in place policies that if a class is under X number of a attendees it will either be canceled or an additional staff member will be there for safety/supervision. Creating policies about handing out personal information and giving your staff tools to avoid it.

    Don’t forget that this is also a young woman who is in the fortunate position of being able to have someone who is more experienced and in a position of power–you!–intervene on her behalf and teacher her by example how to do so. You are her boss. You have a responsibility to keep her safe and teach her. Use this opportunity to do so. Say, “it’s come to my attention that you were given a staff member’s personal number. We actually had a recent policy change to prevent that. Any inquiries regarding our business should come through our business lines, and any contact between paying clients and our staff has to be business related per our fraternization policies.” And make these policies!!! That you enforce!!

    1. Anon in Canada*

      Many “older” people may view this whole situation from a different perspective than Gen Z or younger millennials would – because they grew up before the arrival, and generalization, of online dating.

      Some male behavior that was “tolerated” once upon a time no longer is. Before online dating, let’s say 25 or even up to 15 years ago (before it further skyrocketed in popularity around 2010), men may have been “excused” for hitting on women in public places, or even at their workplaces, because people would have said “well, if he doesn’t have a social circle that can introduce him to women, where else is he supposed to meet women?” The behavior did annoy women, but it was brushed off as “there aren’t a lot of alternatives for men”.

      Such “era” differences still show up in (bad) dating advice from parents and grandparents who have been in one continuous relationship since the pre-online dating era.

      By now, an outright majority of couples meet online. “I have no other options to meet women” is a LIE. Go online. There are a variety of sites and apps for all types of people. And in public places, leave women alone; they aren’t there to be hit on and don’t want strangers hitting on them. The technology to eliminate this problem is there, and has been for a long time. This is the time when people like LW can become very firm on men who cross boundaries with their employees. No, asking a woman for her phone number while she’s at work, and contacting her for personal purposes, is unacceptable.

      1. bamcheeks*

        I am sure this varies, but I’m mid-40s and all these conversations about consent and harassment were huge in the 2000s when I was in my twenties. IME you would have to go to elder gen X OR being very out-of-touch with most feminist or women’s spaces to be surprised by this discussion today.

        1. Your Social Work Friend*

          I agree with you, and even then, these conversations have been going on for so long, and the issues (harassment, lack of support for women, etc) even longer, that one has to be almost willfully ignorant of them at this point.

        2. Anon in Canada*

          We don’t know what LW’s age is, she could be elder Gen X.

          Yes, these conversations were there in the 2000s… and online dating was there (10% of new couples in 2000, 18% in 2005, 20% in 2009, before further skyrocketing throughout the 2010s to reach 39% pre-covid, then outright majority since the arrival of covid.

          Before online dating became commonplace, and even in the 2000s when it was common but many men still thought “it was a scam” and women thought “it was for losers”, behavior like this may have been rationalized away as “men have got to have ways to meet women!” by both men and women. People who were last on the dating market in the 90s or before may still be thinking that way, and be “softer” on sexual harassment in public places than the current era calls for.

          1. bamcheeks*

            I absolutely remember the changeover from meeting online being cringe to normal (when me and my partner met online in the mid-00sc we fibbed about how we knew each other.) I’m just less convinced that the age you were when online dating became normal is that significant a factor in whether you think men hitting on women in any and every setting is acceptable or not. My memory is that me and my friends discussed it and thought it was completely obnoxious back in the late 90s and early 00s. The dividing line for me is how much you value women’s comfort over being invested in defending patriarchy.

          2. Your Social Work Friend*

            This is a lot like saying we should expect elderly people to be racist, homophobic, insert your favorite -ism just because of their age. Not only does that remove responsibility from those people but also insults their ability to adapt, change, and move forward with the world around them. The push for women to be able to exist in public (especially while working!!) without automatically being an object of sexual or romantic interest has been going on a long time. It has been 30 years since it was “the 90s” and this dating technology was newfangled and strange. There has always been a huge difference between chatting up a woman who is, say, another patron in a bar and chatting up a woman who is literally being paid to be in your presence.

            Even if that is the case and the LW doesn’t see this as harassing or inappropriate it does not change the fact that is making the employee (Emma) uncomfortable and Emma has articulated that to the LW. By virtue of that alone, the LW needs to act in Emma’s best interest. I will also say, I think that LW clearly understands that this is a Problem and what they’re asking is how to help solve it. There is no question that LW thinks this needs to stop, it’s the how to get it to stop.

            1. Anon in Canada*

              My mom (younger boomer) threw a gigantic fit at me when I signed up on a dating site in… 2018. She said only the worst of losers would ever touch that with a 10 foot pole.

              While a similar scenario to LW’s never came up for discussion, I’m quite sure she would deem it more acceptable to ask a fitness instructor for her phone number and attempt personal communication from there than to use a dating site.

              She has also never accepted that millennials/Gen Z don’t use phone calls as the default method of social communication, and thinks texting/IM is a “vastly inferior” form of communication.

              Some people are indeed that slow at accepting socio-technological change.

              Also, the first dating site was created in 1994; by 1998 still only 4% of couples met through this method. “Newfangled and strange” was more like 25 years ago, not 30.

              1. Your Social Work Friend*

                None of that has anything to do with the issue at hand, other than to justify the behavior that has made Emma uncomfortable. LW’s personal opinion of how this came about is irrelevant, as are stories about people who aren’t the ones in the letter. I find it strange that you are belaboring that point as though to justify what the gentleman did to make Emma uncomfortable.

                The point is that no matter the LW’s personal feelings on the matter, as an employer they have a responsibility to maintain a safe, healthy work environment. And my point was that as women (still assuming that LW is a woman, I apologize to them if that is not the case) it is important for us to help one another by protecting the younger or less experienced in these situations, and mentoring them. I hope that my original point is helpful to the LW.

                1. Anon in Canada*

                  Correct, what I said is not directly related to the issue at hand. I was trying to explain why many “older” people may not take such situations seriously enough, because the standards “back in their day” were different and they haven’t adjusted. We don’t know how old LW is.

                  If you read my other comments, I said that Ryan should definitely be banned from Emma’s lessons and perhaps from the business altogether. I also said that it’s unacceptable for a customer to ask a female employee for her phone number, and that changing Emma’s schedule to “accommodate” this situation was inappropriate.

        3. Dancing Otter*

          Gen X? I’m a Boomer, and workplace harassment fueled part of the Movement.

          “I won’t wear makeup. I won’t shave. I won’t wear deodorant. (A bridge too far for me, but it was A Thing.) I am a person. I am not eye candy, and I refuse to be a sex object.”

          And fifty years later, too many men still call us unreasonable, frigid b$%$%$s, and feminazis. (Or whatever the current epithet of choice may be.) The “sexual revolution” was about being ALLOWED to have sex, not being REQUIRED to.

          Putting away the soapbox now….

        4. Clare*

          My boomer father gets very angry about these sorts of discussions. He says his mother taught him to treat women with respect and as equals, and he was at an all boys boarding school from the age of 9. He’s told me there’s no excuse for anyone his age either. Any man born after the silent generation knows better and is pretending not to, according to him.

        5. IneffableBastard*

          While I agree, I would like to point out that this did not happened in other countries. I now live in Canada, but in my homecountry things started getting discussed in the mid 2010s and are still not so widespread. So it is also possible that the OP missed on these conversations and will have to do some research to catch up. At least there’s organisations than can help with workshops and other resources for workplaces to quickly make her business safer for employees and no cis-het-male clients.

  64. LifeBeforeCorona*

    Perhaps a work policy that says staff are not allowed to give out their personal numbers? They can if they choose to but it’s a safer fallback if they can tell someone that it’s not allowed by their workplace.

    1. Anon in Canada*

      The policy could say that if someone asks for their phone number or contact info, they may lie and tell them they aren’t allowed to; but may still give it if they want.

      1. thelettermegan*

        I like this idea. Let the evil corporate gym be the bad guy if Emma needs it. Clients might be disappointed but not at Emma.

  65. Former Instructor*

    As a former personal trainer/yoga instructor that OFTEN had classes with only 1 student (small studios building business, awkward times that were seasonally better, etc.) and also OFTEN got hit on and felt super awkward about how to reject them –

    1) Make a policy that classes with only 1 student will be cancelled. If you’re building and want to keep those classes in play, the owner or another employee should be present for the class. You probably lose money on 1 person classes anyway (Most yoga studios I visit these days require online sign-up at least 10 minutes in advance for this reason – so they can cancel 10 mins before class if there is only 1 student enrolled).
    2) Harassment training for employees for sure – particularly, a script for all instructors for how to reject being hit on. “Sorry, I’m not allowed to give out my personal phone number to clients.”
    3) But the main reason I’m commenting is this: as part of that training, please encourage your instructors to create separate social media accounts for them as Professionals, but please DON’T ban your instructors from interacting on social media! Most instructors and fitness professionals rely almost exclusively on social media to build their classes and find private clients – if you make ban it as part of your company policy, you’re hamstringing their ability to succeed long-term. The fitness world is NOT like other businesses – people choose instructors they like based on social feeds and likeability and rapport and other intangibles that feel very boundary-crossing to non-fitness types (and often ARE boundary-crossing, don’t get me wrong). The balance is to make it safer without inadvertently punishing the employee – which IMO, taking away her a.m. classes did do, unfortunately.

  66. Jesshereforthecomments*

    I feel for Emma. I had this happen to me a lot in my years of customer service. I never once truly trusted or believed that my employer would have my back until they explicitly demonstrated that they did (and most of them did not). I spent a lot of time shutting men down in tangential ways so as not to anger them from a service perspective and from a safety perspective. No woman should have to do this.

    LW what I want to emphasize is that when you say Ryan is just socially awkward, Ryan is a nice guy, he means no harm, that’s a signal to Emma and all women that you’re defending the man doing the inappropriate thing and you’re not on the side of the woman being harassed. There’s no need to say these things and you need to examine why you’re trying to defend a man who is indeed harassing your employee.

    Also, it really bothers me that you’re placing any blame on Emma by saying she should not have given him her phone number. The blame is on Ryan and on the environment you’ve inadvertently created by not making it incredibly clear that your employees are not to be hit on, their bodies are not to be commented on (if this hasn’t happened already, it will), and they’re not allowed to fraternize with clients.

    LW, I hope you’re taking in Alison’s advice and reading through all these comments to educate yourself. You can do much better.

  67. thelettermegan*

    It might be helpful to set up policies that let Emma say ‘no’ without having to be the bad guy. Set up some official rules that state no private communications between clients and instructors as all scheduling and fitness discussion should go through the gym’s communication channels, as if you’re worried that the trainers are poaching clients. Write up some similar for social media.

    Then . . . . don’t enforce it. Let Emma and anybody else just use ‘the rules’ as needed – if they want to connect with someone outside of the gym, they can do so, but if they don’t want to, they can point to the rules and say management is ‘cracking down’ on outside communications again.

    1. LucyGoosy*

      This. My whole career I’ve been in the adult education/higher ed sphere. Schools have incredibly variable ideas about the kind of fraternization that can happen between staff/faculty and students (literally everything from “You must leave a public place if you happen to see a student there” to “Staff can marry students as long as they are not grading/evaluating them.”) I have always had a policy that I will not fraternize with adult students for all the obvious reasons, regardless of the school policies, but it’s especially helpful to say, “Hello, nice to hear from you. Unfortunately, school policy prohibits us from sharing personal information with students. See you in class next week!”

      It honestly gets really weird if you turn someone down and then have to continue seeing them at work, so it’s best to have some sort of policy in place that employees can fall back on.

      1. LucyGoosy*

        Also (just thought of this)–because it is generally against company policies/unprofessional for a person in a customer service type role to hit on their clients/customers, it’s pretty common for said clients/customers to think, “Oh wow, Emma seemed like she was really into me. I bet she isn’t allowed to give out her number at work. I should probably let her know I’m interested and ask her out instead.” In other words, the fact that the employee has not signaled any interest in the customer/client isn’t really a deterrent the way it might be out in the wild. I’ve had students do this to me.

  68. Jam on Toast*

    I wonder, OP, how many other similar, unwelcome approaches or interactions that your staff have had to respond to that you may not be aware of, because they didn’t want to rock the boat or weren’t sure how you would respond or were worried it would impact their earnings? You’re treating Emma’s experience as a one-off thing, but dollars to donuts, your trainers and employees have dealt with dozens and dozens and dozens of Ryans and Ryannas and JUST NOT TOLD YOU ABOUT IT.

    You are a manager in an industry where unwelcome sexual advances are ubiquitous. You need to be proactive. I’d say that the first step in instituting any new policy is to understand the scope of the problem. Maybe that’s encouraging your staff to discuss any unwanted physical or social demands during your one-on-ones or maybe it’s putting it on the agenda at the next staff meeting and letting your employees have the floor, maybe that’s an anonymous survey (and really anonymous, pls!!!) that asks people to share their experiences about harassment while they’ve been working at your gym.

    But at a minimum, you need to know how often have they experienced unwanted requests?. Who was the person who approached them? A member? A guest? Another staff person? Where and when did they happen (at a large class, during personal training, at the reception desk, in the main gym etc). At night? during the day? Virtually? How did they respond? What patterns do you see? What business practices might be allowing creeps to creep successfully or subtly communicating a no-big-deal-vibe to clients and a you’re-on-your-own vibe to your staff? What suggestions do they have for improving the situation: scheduling changes to ensure no one works alone, having the anti-harassment policy posted in all gym spaces, more staff training or scripts, a way to add notes the client database so you can identify patterns of problem clients etc.

    You need to realize this is happening frequently, probably daily, and take ownership of the issue so your staff and your clients can work out safely, without risking harassment or assault.

    1. Mouse*

      I agree that some investigation into the workplace climate is a good idea. OP, it sounds like you don’t have any formal policy in place, and you have at least one employee uncertain how to handle situations like these. There are many good suggestions on this post of things to implement. Think of all of this in context of not just Ryan – even if he’s truly the first boundary-pushing client you’ve had, there will almost certainly be more Ryans in the future, and some of them might not be as “nice”.

  69. HonorBox*

    One other thing that hit me as I read comments: Not only do we need to ensure people feel empowered to say “no” we also need to be supportive of them when they do. Emma may not have felt like she had the backing to say no directly (because of the 1:1 situation, because of the employee/client perspective…all of which are correctable). I was about Emma’s age when I was hit on aggressively by someone (not at work) and when I clearly said no and told the person I absolutely didn’t want their number, my friends told me I was an a-hole for being direct. Let’s continue to support saying no…whether that’s through workplace policies or just normalizing that no is a perfectly acceptable answer.

  70. Jiminy Cricket*

    How about a well-publicized, clear no-socializing/no-harassment/no-hitting-on policy for CLIENTS (that they sign when they join)? Clear grounds to kick them out when they cross the boundaries, and you don’t put all the burden on the staff.

  71. 1-800-BrownCow*

    OP, Emma sounds exactly like me when I was a college senior (well, except the teaching fitness class part, totally not me at all). But yes, I would have likely reacted the same way she did and gone to you for help when things weren’t improving.

    If you follow Allison’s advice (please do), also make sure to approach Emma with full and ensure she obviously understands that you are more than willing to step in and help in any way, whatever you can do to help her feel more comfortable. Don’t just go back to her and say that ‘you suppose you can intervene….if she wants you to…if she really thinks she can’t do it all by herself’. In other words, don’t make her feel pressured to handle it alone without your full support. Honestly, her coming to you in the first place, to me is her asking for your direct help now. Just thinking about myself at her age, if I felt pressured to handle it alone, I’d likely say I would but, I know I would likely have not said anything more.

  72. General von Klinkerhoffen*

    I would suggest that if you introduce a “No personal contact details” rule, you could frame it as being to do with work – you don’t need the PT’s number, it’s far more efficient to book coaching through the desk, we support work-life balance, etc.

    I also think there’s a big overlap between some people’s entitled behaviour (“but how else am I supposed to contact her? what if she’s my true love?!”) and the “but this is my dream job” mentality discussed last week. “But how else! Fate meant us to be together so I have to bug her at work!” Yeah life sucks sometimes, my friend, and if the stars are truly aligned she’ll turn out to be your cousin’s next door neighbour and you can meet-cute her that way. Just Not At Her Workplace.

  73. nekosan*

    As a socially awkward young woman I used to just flat-out tell guys “no”, “no, never”, “no, go away”, “no, go away and leave me alone”. Quite a few thought I was just being “silly” or “playing hard to get” or “flirting by saying ‘no’ when I obviously meant ‘yes'”. I say what I mean; I don’t know how to get any clearer than that.

    You NEED to have her back.

    1. Observer*

      Quite a few thought I was just being “silly” or “playing hard to get” or “flirting by saying ‘no’ when I obviously meant ‘yes’”. I say what I mean; I don’t know how to get any clearer than that.

      Mr. Collins’ proposal to Lizzy Bennett resonates because it’s a caricature of a very real behavior pattern.

  74. Going Against The Flow*

    Going forward you need to
    1. Update the employee and client contracts that you don’t allow employees to socialize with clients. Then enforce it.
    2. Specifically tell Ryan to stop contacting Emma or be banned from the studio.
    3. Consider how to have at least two employees or you and one employee there at all times. Good practice in case of emergencies as well.

    I do sympathize with LW as I typically am a huge advocate for clear communication. Safety absolutely trumps all else. We have to acknowledge though that means words/actions (giving out number) are not matching intent (not interested) and that creates confusion and people tend to lean to the reason that supports what they want to hear.

    Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had people volunteer to do things for school/sports and then be upset I didn’t realize they’d changed their minds or never wanted to in the first place. All because I took them at their word and was ironically giving them the benefit of the doubt for not being responsive afterwards. Of course they are responsible and intend to meet their obligations, they must be really busy. They just tell me if they couldn’t.

    1. Anon in Canada*

      Another suggestion, that I and many others here have made, it to allow staff to claim that there is such a policy, but at the end of the day, not actually enforce one. As in if client asks for employee’s phone number or email, employee may say “actually, I’m not allowed as per policy to give it to you”, but if employee actually wants to give it, let them and don’t penalize them for doing so.

      The client contract could say that “any sexual harassment, including, but not limited to, attempting to contact employees through personal channels or for communication not related to the operation of the studio, may result in being banned from the premises” or something like that.

  75. Young Business*

    Unfortunately, customers can cross a line without being as forward as asking for a number. i.e. leering, staring too long. So, even if Emma hadn’t been asked for her number, she can still feel uncomfortable with Ryan’s mere presence.

    I like the idea of having and enforcing a “no fraternization” policy or empowering employees with a script: “We’re not allowed to give numbers to clients.” I once worked in a client-facing role and received a call from a client on my work phone asking for my personal number, and luckily I had the wherewithal to say “I don’t give my personal number to clients.” But if it had been an ask in person, I might have been too flustered to think on my feet.

    I think employers like LW need to recognize the power imbalance at play. Emma might be thinking, “what if Ryan lodged a baseless complaint against me if I rejected him?” and of course there’s a consideration of much darker consequences, as Alison alluded to.

  76. Dinwar*

    There are two things going on that make this not just “two young adults having an interpersonal issue”:

    1) This is happening at work. It could constitute sexual harassment. Because this can easily blow back on the company, that makes it a work issue. I know that’s the case with vendors, for example.

    2) This is a client. By definition their relationship is a working relationship. Even leaving aside fears of hostility and aggression, Emma may not feel comfortable pushing back too hard because doing so will cost her money.

    I understand the impulse to not get involved with employee’s lives in this way. I’ve told more than a few employees “We don’t hire children, you’re expected to deal with after-hours stuff in ways that don’t interfere with the job.” If she’d said no and he’d listened, this would be an entirely interpersonal issue. But there are limits. If one of our clients hit on a staff member, that would be cause for no small amount of concern–whether or not the staff member reciprocated!

    As a 3rd point: If you don’t take Emma’s side, how will the other people on your staff feel? You will have established that this client’s behavior is acceptable as far as you’re concerned. Any staff member with concerns about similar behavior (man or woman–I’ve seen some aggressive gay men, and had to deal with one or two myself) will now know that their options are to either put out or get out. Further, other clients will absolutely see this. The better types of clients will find somewhere else to work out (who wants to work out in such an environment?), and the worse sorts will be encouraged.

  77. CG*

    My first thought on reading this was good on Emma for having the courage to say something to her employer about this at all!! I know when I was 20, I was still deep in the training I received in my childhood to shuffle all my actions to fit around soothing other people’s feelings (especially men’s feelings!), and I’m sure that in a similar situation, college senior me would have felt like I had to 1) be as nice to Ryan as is humanly possible and keep interacting with him and 2) not say anything to my boss because it was my responsibility to handle/I might be blamed for the interactions.

  78. Nancy*

    This is why many fitness and dance studios have policies against outside socialization between instructors and clients. Do you have a policy?

  79. Coin Purse*

    I attend a yoga studio where classes go on, 1 student or 20. An instructor friend of mine (female) had a male student try and hump her when she was correcting a posture of his. She stopped the lesson and told him to leave. She did not offer his money back. She kept pepper spray on hand but didn’t need to use it.

    We talked later about the risks of private yoga sessions or 1:1 classes. She felt that she didn’t want to cancel these options because 99% of the time they were excellent customer experiences. What she did do was add a third person whenever the studio was open.

  80. Art of the Spiel*

    “Emma reiterated that Ryan had never been disrespectful or threatening”

    Um yeah, she’s still afraid to make too big a deal about it, especially because my sense is *you* are “not the kind of guy who would catch subtle signals.” (quoting from the letter, not assuming your gender)

    I hope you take Alison’s advice and bonus if you read the comments.

    1. edda ed*

      That definitely caught my eye too. Emma wasn’t expressing her wholly honest opinion, she was prevaricating because the LW is the boss. That kind of power gap is so much more visible from below.

    2. Falling Diphthong*

      This is a really good point.

      She’s giving the customer who hit on her a soft no, because of the power dynamic. She’s giving the boss who can fire her or cut her hours or insist that she teach him one-on-one a soft “I am very uncomfortable and don’t feel safe handling this customer this alone,” because of the power dynamic.

  81. Boof*

    This happened to me a few times when i was in fwd facing summer jobs (think, subbing for a receptionist) – i’m pretty geeky and socially awkward myself and as such had no problem telling people who asked for my number no, but i think this is one of many situations where humans are prone to saying yes if there’s no “reason” to say no (and “I don’t want to” is something some folks are highly conditioned as not a good enough reason)
    Being forewarned is forearmed; maybe make it clear at orientation that sometimes customers may ask for personal info and that as a policy you advise against giving it, and you will back staff up that that is the policy and even ban customers that are too pushy or otherwise disrespectful of staff

  82. evens*

    Most of the comments here are very concerned about not victim-shaming Emma, and that’s great. But also, it’s not helpful to say “She shouldn’t have to…” or whatever. The reality is, many guys will ask out girls they find attractive, and that’s a good thing! Women, though, should have a script about how to say no, and Emma didn’t have one handy. That’s fine! It’s a learning experience! These comments, though, aren’t helpful, at least after the first 200.

    Here’s what I would say to Emma. “I’m so sorry you feel uncomfortable. Next time Ryan messages or talks to you, tell him you have enjoyed working with him but that you don’t really want to be friends outside of work. Soften it up as much as you need to. Next time a man asks you for your number, say you don’t date people from work. Sorry! If he persists, let me know and I’ll talk with him.”

    That shows Emma how to get out of it and gives her a script for next time.

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      The point is that in this case, since it was specifically in a place of work, there should be other standards and rules in place to keep from putting the onus on the employee to navigate a situation with a client. It’s different from a random guy just walking up to you on the street and asking you out; there’s a power imbalance at play.

    2. edda ed*

      I would not advise that LW tell Emma to soften her interactions with Ryan. Soft language is almost never effective against someone who persistently oversteps. Besides which, Emma seems to be doing too much softening already, to her detriment. LW is the big boss of the business, and Ryan is a client. The LW absolutely have all the standing in the world to set employee-client policies, or even take it up directly with Ryan if it comes to that.

    3. Ari*

      You’re not reading the many comments by women who have been verbally abused after saying no, however politely. Many of us are afraid to say no, and Emma was alone with this man who may be nice now…but who may not be nice if rejected. Perhaps she has a script but didn’t feel empowered to use it at work (and who can blame her when the owner thinks it’s an “interpersonal issue”). Ryan should never have asked for her number at her workplace, period. And LW should have made sure their employees knew how to handle these incredibly common situations while at work.

    4. Pippa K*

      “Here’s what I would say to Emma” – yeah, and what would you say to Ryan? Because nothing Emma did or said is the problem here.

    5. Indolent Libertine*

      It’s *never* a good thing for a man to ask a woman out (or ask for phone # etc.) when she is at work in a customer-facing role and he’s the customer. She’s under extra pressure to be accommodating because the loss of his business could impact both her and her employer.

    6. Czhorat*

      You said:
      “” The reality is, many guys will ask out girls they find attractive, and that’s a good thing!””

      I respectfully disagree. There are too many men (as many, MANY women have said here) who will not graciously accept “no” as an answer and will escalate in unacceptable and even dangerous ways.

      If you meet a woman at her job (in the gym, as a cashier, a hairdresser, or anything else) then you treat them like someone doing their job and not a romantic prospect. You shouldn’t ask out random women on the street. Or at the library. Or anyplace else they aren’t inviting romantic attention.

      In anything approaching an ideal world, Emma shouldn’t need a script for clients hitting on her because clients shouldn’t be hitting on her. If she wants to look for companionship she’ll go to a club, a bar, or use a dating app.

      1. JM*

        This is it! When I’ve said this though, men act all victimized because they seem to think if they catch you off guard, then they have an in.

        Which is exactly the problem. **Existing** is not an invitation for romantic attention.

    7. Clare*

      My friend, you’re not listening. It’s often dangerous to use a script like that. Some men will react violently to any answer that confirms “I won’t date you”, no matter how softly. Others will pretend to hear but then turn around and stalk you. If a man has formed a narrative in his head that a woman belongs to him (quite possible in the one-on-one session context) then he will react poorly to even the softest, lightest, gentlest rejection because it feels like he’s losing his property. You’d be mad if someone stole your laptop, right? The emotions are no different. Now Ryan might not have formed that mental narrative, in which case Emma would be safe to reject him. But if he had, she would have been taking a big risk by essentially stealing from him (in his mind). Far safer for her boss to commit the ‘theft’ via policy, or to let time and distance remove ownership status. I know that sounds really weird to those who don’t think that way, but please trust me when I say many many people of all different types do.

    8. Storm in a teacup*

      I sincerely hope many guys are not asking out ‘girls’ seeing as paedophilia is awful and a crime. I am assuming you meant to use the word ‘women’ here

    9. IneffableBastard*

      The fact that you call adult women “girls” is a manifestation of a cultural issue that was discussed many times. And no, it is not a good thing that men will ask women out. It CAN be a good thing under certain circumstances, it can be a neutral thing in other contexts, and it can be a bad or dangerous thing in circumstances such as this one from LW: a woman being hit on in her workplace, where all kinds of power imbalance happen and in a setting where she did not feel safe.

  83. Ess Ess*

    Emma should easily say to Ryan, “hey, just wanted to clarify that my number is to be used for work-related messages only. I keep personal and work socializing separate. Sorry for any confusion.”
    Simple, straightforward, and non-insulting.

    1. edda ed*

      Well, your position seems to be that of the LW. As Alison and numerous commenters have already said, there’s way too high a chance that even the most innocuous, non-insulting verbiage could get a horrible reaction, ranging from verbally nasty to outright fatal. Ryan already imposed on Emma when there were no other people nearby as witnesses/help. LW thus far seems to have excellent intentions, but isn’t backing their employees strongly. Emma has very solid reasons to equivocate and continue to equivocate.

    2. Clare*

      Please check out my reply to the comment by evens above yours. If he’s formed a narrative in his mind that she belongs to him, then he will subconsciously take rejection as theft, and people tend to punish theives. It’s not that easy.

  84. Coco*

    Some advice for Emma. At this point, to respectfully and kindly extricate yourself from Ryan, remove him from all social media and block his number on your phone. Let him know you have done so because you prefer to keep your personal and professional life separate. If he suggests a friendship or otherwise outside of the gym, this is your opportunity to be clear you aren’t interested.

    Now! This is assuming he’s just a regular guy who’s met a girl he likes and will move on. If he’s anything other than that, you will have to take precautions based on his reactions.

    I disagree with your boss that this is interpersonal and they could mandate this as a policy however, we are here now so let’s just get you out of the situation.

    …and yes, I understand Emma will not likely see this.

  85. PlainJane*

    Not the original commenter, but I think that employers/managers need to be clear at the outset that employees are not only not required to give their phone numbers, but that they should not do so, and why. Anyone who works with the general public is susceptible to this kind of harassment, and a clear and early statement from the employer that numbers should never given would have given Emma the social tool she needed to escape without it being a personal rejection–“Sorry, we’re not allowed to give our numbers to customers.” It puts Ryan in the place he needs to be–“You are a customer like all other customers and that is the limit of our relationship”–and does not put Emma in the place of choosing whether or not she wants to give her number to someone. I might even post it in the gym to give a known reference point that she can refer to.

  86. Salted caramel*

    Even if we set the personal safety concerns listed above… It just isn’t such a cut-and-clear matter of rejection as you seem to think, OP. She’s an instructor, he’s a client and she has an obligation to be nice and obliging to him. He hasn’t outright asked her out, made any innuendos or harassed her…yet, but he’s basically making overtures by pretending their relationship is closer than it is. Do you get what I mean? I’m sure that there are instructors that click with some clients, connect on social media, might become friends or else… In this case, there is no base for such a relationship, but he’s trying to force it down that path without there being any indications on her side for that. He’s toeing the line and if Emma had outright said a very clear ”no”, she would have come across as what a lot of men like to call a ”bitch”. An uppity instructor who thinks she’s too good to add her clients on social media. Etc.

    Honestly, Emma handled it as well as she could. No outright advances, no outright rejection, but it’s very clear where this is going and she’s trying to put a stop on it. I am surprised at how irritated you seem to be at Emma, who’s trying to remain professional without alienating a client from your studio. Ryan’s a bit socially awkward, you say? Yeah, maybe, or maybe not. A lot of guys play that game when it comes to women.

    Anyway, English is my second language, so this was really hard to put into words, but Emma did nothing wrong here. It’s bizarre to me that you seem to be putting all the responsibility on her. In the best light, there was awkward situation leading to awkward interactions, now everything has been resolved and you kept a client… and yet somehow you’re still unhappy with Emma. I don’t understand.

  87. Norris*

    I love this response so much. It really speaks to the hidden world women navigate everyday!

    Thank you for posting, I’m sending this to everyone I know.

  88. Mmm.*

    If she wants to tell the employee about a solid no, it should be “feel free to say a firm no to any client who expresses interest in you. This wouldn’t go against any rules, and I’ll back you up.”

    I think bosses forget how much folks working beneath them in customer service (or related) positions fear their jobs are at risk alllll the time, especially due to an upset customer.

  89. Office Drone*

    This sounds like a great time to create a business policy surrounding fraternization between staff and clients. The staff should have input and the final policy should be reviewed with all clients when they sign up for classes.

    I’d even suggest having clients sign a statement acknowledging they have received and reviewed the policy, and that they understand its terms. Current clients can be given the “new policy” when they sign in for their next session.

    1. Salted caramel*

      @Office Drone This is possible, but… just because a client has read and agreed to such a policy doesn’t stop them from trying to make advances or harass the staff; it just means that there might be more consequences later, but as Alison pointed out above – the awkwardenss/harm is already done. And such policies often end up pushing harassers even more towards plausible deniability behaviour – ”I was just being nice! Making small talk! I stand this close to everyone!” (for example) and the onus would still be on the instructor to reject them without alienating them.

      1. Office Drone*

        SC: The value of a formal policy and having clients sign off on it is that it lays out unacceptable behaviors (such as asking staff for their personal phone number) and consequences for violations. If someone truly is just “socially awkward,” a written agreement gives that person clear guidance on what is allowed and what isn’t. If someone argues later about enforcement of a policy already agreed to and signed, s/he can be banned for that alone.

  90. Throw me under the bus*

    When I supervised student employees, I had a broad “throw me under the bus” approach. Anytime the student was asked to do something they felt uncomfortable doing – including giving out personal info, accompanying someone somewhere, getting in an elevator, etc. they were free to use “My boss says I am not allowed to do that” or some variation. (For the elevator, I also recommended “I’m going to take the stairs, I need to get my steps in today.”) They are free to roll their eyes in disgust at their horrible boss (me) and express any level of frustration at ‘my rules’. But they can use me any time at the point of need as their excuse. Of course they are free to come to me for help, debrief, or further deal with a problem, and some have. But the “my mean boss says no” was a great tool.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      “Throw me under the bus” is also a useful strategy for teenagers – translates to “my mom won’t let me”. Message me with unusual punctuation “can I stay out??” and I’m cued up to reply “no, I need to pick you up in half an hour”. Don’t want to go to the party that’s going to be chaos? Yeah, tell them I’m making you go to your grandma’s instead.

  91. Molly Millions*

    I think LW should give Emma permission to tell him that she doesn’t use her personal phone number for work stuff and direct him to the gym’s contact number. (And then block him or stop replying.)

    Right now, Emma might think she’ll get in trouble with her boss if she doesn’t reply to the “work”-related messages. (Which, frankly, may be why he’s texting her those questions – he was perfectly able to navigate the gym’s services and get to his classes *before* he had her personal cell.)

  92. Seen Too Much*

    The only thing I don’t agree with is your caveat to ask Emma if she would like LW to intervene. As a person in authority, it is LWs responsibility to ensure all employees feel that their manager, HR, CEO, whatever, will have their backs. The rest of this is long, it just shows why you need to go that extra step.

    The first issue I ever encountered like this, was when I first started in HR and had no input into this situation. A manager had a direct report that would constantly ask them out, constantly tell them how great they looked in that outfit today. Followed them outside of work – this was before social media – and would turn up at the manager’s local deli, supermarket, park, or anywhere they happened to be. The company wouldn’t do anything. Their attitude was, it was up to the manager to lay the boundary. Eventually, the direct report went too far and attacked and raped the manager. The manager ended up suing the company for not protecting them.

    Remembering this, I worked at an online magazine as the HR manager, with much more authority. It was a niche magazine, and each writer had a specific “beat”. This meant they were running into/interviewing the same people over and over again. One of the writers had an interview, where the interviewee made inappropriate advances. The writer said no thanks and walked away from the situation. Later, the interviewee did some inappropriate touching, and the writer walked away again.

    The next time they met, again the same thing happened. The writer was worried about how they were going to do their job and still feel safe.

    The writer brought the issue to their manager, who brought it to me. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy as moving her to another beat. So I called the interviewee’s publicity rep and explained that if this happened again, not only would we no longer interview them, but they would be banned from any of our events, as an attendee or speaker and we would archive all of their previous interviews from our website. The editor was fully onboard and was willing to write a scathing editorial about the subject. In our niche industry, that would have been a death sentence. As long as I worked there, the issue never happened again.

    In another position, we had an employee who was being stalked by one of the cleaners who worked for the building we were in. We banned the cleaner from working in our offices completely and told the building that if they refused to fire the individual, they needed to ensure they did not work during our employees’ workday. We told the building that we would contact the police if we saw the cleaner anywhere near our offices. At first, the building refused to fire the cleaner. They told us that they had changed shifts. Unfortunately, that was a lie and the cleaner started waiting by the elevators for our employee. We immediately contacted the police, which is a long process. We also gave notice to the building that because of their refusal to protect the safety of our employee, we would be moving within 90 days. We gave the employee 30 days paid leave, and moved them to remote and then looked for a new place for our office. We had 3 full floors. The building management company then fired the cleaner, upgraded security and offered us a really reduced rate to stay. We moved anyway.

    Bottom line – you are responsible for the safety of your employees. You say that if he was being threatening you would have banned him. Guess what – he is being threatening. Ban him.

  93. sparkle emoji*

    As someone who was in a similar situation to Emma, this is really hard to deal with. For me, it was unexpected: I was at work, interacting with a customer normally, not flirting. I froze in the moment and another older female coworker swooped in to shut him down, which I was super grateful for. She also walked with me to my car because we weren’t sure how he would react. Emma didn’t ask for this. She did her best in an awkward, scary moment.
    LW, I’m curious why you’re running a class for one person. Unless this is a personal coaching setting, most fitness classes I’ve been to would reschedule if there was only ever one person signing up in a timeslot. Setting a minimum number of attendees to hold the class would help more than hinting that Emma has a boyfriend (because what if they break up? Are Ryan’s advances acceptable then? She’s not interested, the reason why doesn’t matter).

  94. AmyKat*

    Something very similar happened to me a few years back. I am am early childhood educator, and when I was a bit younger and newer to my field, a single dad asked for my phone number when dropping his child off in the morning. I was somewhat blindsided, and not knowing what to say, I gave it to him.

    When I got to take my lunch break, I discovered he’d been blowing up my phone with texts all morning asking me if I’d be up for coming over to watch movies soon, wanting to chit chat, and wondering why I wasn’t responding. Um…because I am busy supervising your preschool child? I told him I wasn’t interested and asked him not to text me again, and I went to my boss and asked for her help. We worked things out so another teacher would interact with that parent as much as possible instead of me.

    You don’t always know what to say in the moment, and we are often conditioned not to say no, or only give a soft no. Support from an understanding boss can go a long way in these situations.

    1. MicroManagered*

      This makes every version of “single TV dad is dating the child-character’s teacher” so CRINGE.

      1. AmyKat*

        Hey, my mom met my widowed dad when she was teaching his first grader. But that was a situation where both were very much on board, and I think they didn’t get together till his child was no longer in her class. It’s very different if isn’t clearly wanted attention.

  95. Youngin*

    Purposefully not responding to any message or contact that had nothing to do with the class was a CLEAR and RESOUNDING no.

  96. Molly Millions*

    Maybe someone with more experience with gyms could weigh in here, but a strict no-fraternization policy seems kind of heavy-handed.

    IMO, the gym probably has dozens of clients, who may live in the same community as the trainers and could run into them in other contexts. (Especially if they’re involved in other athletic activities).

    I think there’s a clear difference between Ryan making unwanted advances and, say, one of the ladies from spin class thinking Emma seems fun and inviting her to book club.

    By all means, employees should be able to *claim* that policy exists. But I don’t think you need to crack down on innocuous social activities.

    (But please correct me if I’m wrong).

  97. Weez*

    I’m sort of bothered by the suggestion – from LW but mostly people in general – that the response to the situation that men often assume any friendly woman is flirting, should be for women to assume any intrusive man is flirting – and should therefore explicity turn him down without him ever having asked her out.*

    It reminds me of the “I’m not sexist! I don’t mind women, as long as they’re exactly like men” people who give “Have you tried not wearing pink?” advice to women experiencing sexism.

    Trying to copy a negative mostly-male attitude (of assuming romantic interest from everyone whose interactions stand out to you) is not a good thing.

    *Which, seen from the other side, also resembles the “you’ve led me on!” thinking from some men after a friendship or acquiantanceship (or tolerable five-minute conversation) doesn’t end with a “happy ending”.

    1. Loose Socks*

      I have faced aggression from men before, and nearly been killed because of it. If a man misreads an interaction with a woman, it’s awkward. If a woman misreads an interaction with a man, they could be killed. The two situations may seem similar on the surface level, but they consequences are statistically much worse for women.A woman ALWAYS needs to keep their safety a priority, a man doesn’t have to. My husband was shocked when I went over what to do if a man tried to rape her, no one ever had to teach him what to do if someone tries to rape him. He also asked me why I always check the back seat before I get in the car, and why I never pick up hitchhikers. Men exist in a different world from women, like it out not, and they have the luxury of operating as though everyone else has good intentions. Women don’t get that luxury.

    2. AmyKat*

      Emma is under no obligation to have a social connection with a client when she is uncomfortable with it, whether or not he was actually flirting with her.

      Unwanted attention is unwanted attention, regardless of the intent behind it.

      1. Weez*

        Re-reading my comment, I don’t think I was clear at all. It can be read as if I mean that Emma should just keep turning up being friendly every morning, which is not what I meant (and is so far beyond what I meant that I didn’t consider making that explicit; it seemed obvious in my head).

        I agree with you.

        I disagree with LW that Emma should solve this by turning him down, particularly as he hasn’t asked her out at all. Emma is being professionally courteous. Ryan’s response to that is by escalating to “ambiguous flirting”. Emma should not be required to “escalate” (I don’t like that term here, but it’s past midnight and I won’t come up with a better one) to making the conversation unambiguously about romance or her lack of interest therein.

        (I don’t mean escalate as a value judgement, just in a measure of “how much is this conversation explicitly about romance”, with Emma’s “Well done on getting another rep in!” being a 0, Ryan’s “Your perfume smells amazing” being 0.5, and Emma’s “I’m not interested in a relationship with you” a 1. Emma should not be required or expected to copy the common male behaviour of “always make the conversation 0.5 more explicitly about romance or sex than the pretty woman you’re interacting with does”.
        Which would not be wrong of her to do, to be clear: it’s appropriate for her in this situation, just like Ryan’s asking for
        a woman’s number might be appropriate if it were in a bar rather than in a workplace.)

        Emma absolutely *can*, if she prefers it. But she shouldn’t be *required* to.

        LW should solve this. And not by wanting or requiring Emma to be more explicit.

        1. Clare*

          So what I’m reading is you’re saying it isn’t Emma’s fault for not saying to Ryan “Back off I don’t want a date”, and that she’d be perfectly entitled to be just as uncomfortable in a world where he truly just wants to be friends and she doesn’t. I agree entirely.

  98. Loose Socks*

    LW, you need to set the precedent with your staff NOW that if any of them feel unfortunate it unsafe with ANY CLIENT, you will take care of it. If your staff can’t trust you to handle what you view as a non-threatening flirtation, what will happen with the next one? What if you read a situation won’t, encourage your staff to handle it themselves, and they end up assaulted it murdered? Your clients will also see you taking your stage security seriously and feel safer as well. I have been corned by a “overly nice” man before that “kindly” pointed out we were alone in the gym, called me “baby” multiple times, tried to find out where I live, etc (for context, I am a woman). It is TERRIFYING! when I told the owner of the gym, he immediately pulled up surveillance feed, figured out who it was, and told him to stop and that if it happens again his membership will be cancelled, then made sure there was always another person there during the times I am usually there. THAT is how you prioritize safety. I recommend my gym to everyone specifically because of how seriously he took my safety concerns. You need to do the same, today.

  99. Who’s that?*

    I consider the “do you have a boyfriend” question as a red flag. It’s not always asked to determine if he should step down, rather it’s asked to see if he’d be in danger if he were to pursue a woman. If there’s no threat of a boyfriend, the pursuit can go full steam ahead. Cowardly and creepy.

  100. Ms. Murchison*

    Yikes, I hope the LW takes the responses to heart. Her client cornered one of her employees alone to make a romantic advance. Of course she didn’t feel safe to reject him.
    LW needs to pull up her big girl pants and be a boss. Inserting herself into the situation to protect her employees is exactly her job.

  101. Typing All The Time*

    Maybe consult with a lawyer about notifying your customers of your policy between clients/staff members that forbids this type of behavior something that you could send to them via mass email or post within your location. In the case that Ryan continues to pursue Emma, this could protect you both.

  102. Taxed out*

    Why is everyone judging the LW? They are correct to want to help their employees to feel empowered without overstepping. They are clearly aware that rejection can be dangerous for women. They acknowledge that by highlighting that Emma herself said she did not feel the guy was a danger and was more about avoiding awkwardness at the expense of creating more awkwardness. LW should put out a memo this week telling ALL staff that the company stands by employees before clients to prevent harrassment including unwanted sexual advances. How they can report it. Maybe even authority to ask someone to leave who is harassing anyone. And Include some response ideas to help them be better prepared for an initial request they can use as they see fit like “Oh, I don’t share personal contact info with clients”. “I prefer to keep relationships with clients focused on providing fitness instruction here at the gym”. “I am not interested in anything outside of our relationship as instructor and client at this gym” . “I was clear about the nature and extent of our relationship. I do not appreciate your continued pursuit of anything different.”

  103. Raida*

    I don’t think that the LW is overlooking reasons why Emma didn’t say No in the moment at all.

    They are focussing on the current status: Emma doesn’t want to date the dude. Emma will NOT tell him this. Emma’s boss is or isn’t expected to intervene and how?

    ‘blaming Emma’ does not actually solve anything, nor does suggesting that the LW is unaware of reasons she avoided the confrontation initially.

    Now they need a solution – is it to say “that’s a you problem Emma”, is it to (horrifically high school and embarassing) tell the fella “I talked to Emma and she said she isn’t interested so don’t hang around to talk to her after class” or is it to insert themselves into a conversation and clearly state “Emma, did you and oh what’s your Boyfriend’s name again? God I’m bad at that hahaaaaa! Did you two enjoy that show on the weekend? It looked like fun.”

    Now, if the advice is “All classes must have at least two attendees or they are cancelled” to avoid 1:1 situations ever – fine. Doesn’t fix this, but fine.

    And just to be clear, I’m saying all of this from a woman’s perspective – Emma’s uncomfortable, the guy’s clueless. Doing nothing only hurts them both, and Emma is the only one of the two of them with the information required to *do something* so it falls to her to act. For both of their sakes. She can ask for and accept help from her manager! But she can’t just………….. hope that it goes away because it’s uncomfortable. Unless she’s gonna ghost him/become rude to drive him away?

    As a manager LW can talk to him in private and say “Hey, my staff are all very nice, and they aren’t here looking for dates. I know you’ve already asked one person for her number and I want to make it clear that I don’t want any more of that buddy. And if any of my staff don’t respond to online chats, let it go. Alright pal?”

    And DOES he want a date? Or a friend? Is he can see her social media does that mean he knows she’s got a boyfriend? Is he flirting or is he trying to socialise? It’s a LOT more hurtful to tell someone “No. And I have a boyfriend already.” than to say “I gave you my number but now I want you to know don’t chat with me, I don’t want to be your friend.” urgh.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      From the moment he asked for her number, there was no “Not hurting poor Ryan’s feelings and making him feel like a person she totally does not want to have in her DMs.”

      He chose to do this approach at work, where she is constrained to be pleasant and upbeat and encouraging toward him. This is very “The waitress wouldn’t smile at me if she wasn’t hot for me.”

      Ryan being clueless does not impress me. Emma never responding unless it’s about work is a clear signal. (And this would hold if he wanted a friend and had decided that the young woman who’s always really nice to him at her work, where he is a customer, must be a good target.)

      1. Sagegreen is my favorite color.*

        Exactly. I’m tired of excuses being made for men who can’t figure this out in this day and age. And of women not protecting other women. I hope Emma quits and finds a better job. Honestly, this is infuriating.

  104. No*

    “I as her employer have been inserted into what should have been handled between two young adults as an interpersonal issue. ”

    Bro you’re talking about two college students. I think your expectations are a little high here. Especially if this is a part time job.

  105. SageTracey*

    Saying that a woman has a boyfriend/partner to deflect male interest simply reinforces the age-old problem of seeing women as being “owned” or “the property” of men, and relies on the bro-code of not stepping into another man’s territory.
    Yes, it’s an easy out, but it doesn’t help the long term problem.
    I wish we lived in a society where it was safe and acceptable for women to simply say no to unwanted attention, and where men just accepted a no.
    Obviously not all men, but we are talking about ones causing issues.

    1. Sagegreen is my favorite color.*

      And the fact that we have to say, we ALWAYS have to say, “obviously not all men”, in every discussion like this.

    2. Observer*

      Yes, it’s an easy out, but it doesn’t help the long term problem.

      True. But in any given situation a woman has the right to think about what will make her safe vs what is likely to help change a societal issue in an almost imperceptible way. (Assuming that it would for her, which is a whole different question.)

  106. Stuff*

    There seems to be a fight here about whether we should validate and protect Emma, or acknowledge that Ryan may be neurodiverse and not understand how Emma feels and what she is trying to communicate to him, and honestly, as an Autistic trans woman, I feel very triggered and invalidated by both sides of this debate. As someone who never, ever wants to creep people out but has unintentionally many times, which I am horrified and mortified about, I do feel like the suggestion that it is wrong to have any thought or care to the possibiliry Ryan just doesn’t get it is ableistic and hostile to people like me. On the other hand, I 100% aggree with everything said about why Emma doesn’t want to say no, feels deeply uncomfortable, and is in a scary situation.

    What really frustrates me is, acknowleding the possibility Ryan may be Autistic and being understanding to him in no way means not protecting and validating Emma. You can do both, and I think you should. Here is how.

    As the manager here, you should step in and talk to Ryan. Kindly but firmly and directly tell him that this sort of contact with Emma is unwanted and cannot continue, and that he cannot take classes with her and needs to leave her alone. Be direct about it. Whether he understood what he was doing or not, what he was doing is still not acceptable. If you want to be kind and validating to Ryan, this is actually the kindest thing you can do for him. If he is in fact Autistic, having a third party (NOT EMMA) calmly but firmly explain how she was made to feel and that his behavior won’t be tolerated is actually a kindness for him. Yea, he’ll hate the experience and feel terrible in the moment, but as an Autistic person, I can tell you we do need to be called out in these situations. We can’t improve if we aren’t held accountable, and to reiterate, being nice to an Autistic man while telling him “What you did was wrong and you need to not talk to Emma or be around her anymore” isn’t “giving him a pass for being Autistic”.

    Also I kinda cringed at a “if he is neurodiverse, his parents should have taught him” comment above. My parents were unfit people who did not teach me proper social skills, and in fact badly inhibited my ability to develop them, so that isn’t helpful, and just makes me feel bad for not being raised properly.

    There was also a comment above complaining about Autistic using Autism as an excuse for shitty behavior, and I just want to say that shis is something I’ve been accused of when I genuinely didn’t understand my behavior was inappropriate on many occasions, and ot’s an accusation I live in constant fear of.

    Finally, I want to emphasize that I am on Emma’s side, here. She shouldn’t have to deal with any of this. This isn’t at all fair to her, and she hasn’t done anything wrong. Which is exactly why OP, as the manager, needs to step in here and handle Ryan. Ryan should, at minimum, be told not to contact Emma again, and she shouldn’t have to teach a class with him in it. Ryan may not understand his behavior was wrong, but that doesn’t negate any of the impact it had on Emma, and she should not have to deal with it again. And if Ryan wants to learn to be a better person, well, Emma has no obligation to help him do that. Also, as an Autistic person, I suspect that if Ryan is Autistic, this whole conversation may well work a lot better coming from a third party authority figure like you than coming from Emma, anyway.

    So, there’s my rant. I don’t know if Ryan is Autistic, I’m not saying he is, it’s just, the subject came up, I am Autistic, and I feel really bad a lot of the comments this thread, so I wanted to say one can both acknowledge the difficulties Autistic people face and that they may not understand the impact of their behavior, while also not giving that behavior a pass, instituting clear and effectivr consequences for that behavior, and protecting and validating the victim. And that’s not “mollycoddling” him.

  107. Falling Diphthong*

    I am getting really tired, on a societal level, of “Oooooh, I have social awkwardness! I shall be trampling all the boundaries around me! I shall ignore all gentle indications that I am bothering people! And if anyone gives up on gentle and spells things out clearly, that obviously means things are up for negotiation and I can logic them into having to be my friend/lover, by the power of logic!”

    Even before we add “Any female presenting people around me, you need to smooth things for me! Smooooooooth. It’s your job!”

    1. bamcheeks*

      It’s so tiring. And this faux-concern about the socially awkward is ALWAYS so transparently gendered: a thousand times “you gotta have sympathy for the poor guy harassing women, he might be socially awkward, which is euphemistic way of saying neurodiverse and means you’re a bad person for criticising him!”, not a single time, “hey, that woman might be ~socially awkward~ and hate being approached in public / at work / whilst she’s just trying to do some goddamn food shopping even more than neurotypical women, so you shouldn’t do that!” Women are assumed to have all the social competence and neurotypical privilege, so we can cater to the poor socially awkward guys.

  108. Clare*

    Also that attitude’s nastier cousin “You spelled it out for me and that made me feel bad, so clearly you are a mean and nasty horrible person who just wants to make people feel bad. Therefore I am justified in disliking and possibly retaliating against you and anyone vicious enough to agree with you.”

  109. the bat in the office popcorn machine*

    1) I understand the dangers, but the dangers are there longer and grow worse the longer you don’t give a clear ‘NO.’ Saying ‘no’ upfront may be met with a comment on your appearance or with cursing you out, but when violent men think they’re being led on is when danger gets ramped up. A hard ‘no’ for someone might be the existence of a boyfriend or spouse. It might be a ‘that’s against the workplace rules and it’s a fire-able offense, so I can’t.’ It may also be, “I’m sorry – I like to keep my work and private life separate.” However, without the right script and depending on the atmosphere, it’s very hard to know what to say. Emma did what she could do to get out of the situation and nothing more/nothing less.

    1.5) Emma isn’t going to enact systemic change in this interaction. She’s trying to avoid awkwardness and potential danger. If she knew she could say the sky is green to get the guy to leave her alone, I’d encourage it. Again, if that means another guy needs to be her “shield” then I’d encourage it (although some guys don’t even respect this so ymmv). As long as she comes out from this interaction safe.

    2) What Emma and LW did was as good as either could do in the confused moment. Emma was happy to not have the early morning class and she is ghosting him. LW can do more, but it should be at Emma’s call because it’s Emma who’ll be a target. I do think some signs should go up — yes, the proverbial Reply All But We All Know It’s For Ryan — that say to respect everyone’s privacy and state the rules of not asking for personal information unless it’s volunteered.

    3) The guy would be a nice, socially awkward person who has been told that this is okay. It doesn’t make it okay. It doesn’t make him a bad guy either.

  110. Yentl*

    I wonder if Ryan very much knows that his attentions are unwelcome, if he is deliberately doing a class that is sometimes one-on-one, but I wonder if the college kid caught a vibe that he wasn’t someone she could safely say no to?

    I ride horses, eventing, not a normal gym, but I can imagine that Ryan would be in a position of significant power relative to her. He’s also genuinely more established in life than she is, even just because he’s presumably not a college kid?

    I wonder if it would be best for a polite excuse to be made for Ryan to no longer be permitted in her classes?

  111. owen*

    having a no-fraternisation type policy and pre-emptively letting all your staff know that you will back them using it is the way to go here.

    i would also suggest pre-emptively letting *clients* know there is a policy that staff should not socialise with clients. Have it in the rules for members, if you have them. One of the items that is gone over with the client at registration, along with what the fees are and the class schedules and what kind of workouts they are looking for, etc. A poster on the noticeboard (not on its own, but a list of common courtesy rules where it is prominently included, perhaps).

    Sure, it’s likely a lot of (most?) clients won’t read it, many won’t remember it even if it’s talked over at registration, and some will flat out ignore it… but the point is that it is somewhere in the open where, if your staff need to refer to it, they can basically point. And your clients can’t claim ignorance.

    and in this specific case, assuming that ryan is legitimately the clueless-but-harmless guy you think he is, it quite possibly would have prevented the entire thing in the first place, because he would have already been explicitly told that the staff are not available for social contacts outside the studio.

  112. D*

    Yeah there is that poor girl in England, he offered her roses, she said no, he pulled out a machete and stabbed her.

  113. Tom*

    Two things:
    1. Social awkwardness, like anything else that causes people to have issues with subtle cues, even from well-intentioned people, does not always manifest itself in ways that are endearing, photogenic, cute, or cuddly. Sometimes it manifests itself in ways that legitimately make people uncomfortable and creep them out.
    2. To the commenters who seem to be of the opinion that starting out online is THE proper way to go about it, while it may be that online dating is how people are meeting these days, given that Americans, both men and women, are reporting higher loneliness and unwanted singleness rates than ever before, I would suggest that perhaps it’s not doing a very good job of accomplishing the goal.

    1. bamcheeks*

      Sometimes it manifests itself in ways that legitimately make people uncomfortable and creep them out

      … so what?

    2. frustratedTrainee*

      1. Social awkwardness, like anything else that causes people to have issues with subtle cues, even from well-intentioned people, does not always manifest itself in ways that are endearing, photogenic, cute, or cuddly. Sometimes it manifests itself in ways that legitimately make people uncomfortable and creep them out.

      Question here – what if EMMA experiences social awkwardness or anything else that causes people to have issues with subtle cues? As an Autistic woman with ADHD, I am FREQUENTLY expected to give men the benefit of a doubt that they deserve a shroud of protection because they might be socially awkward or ND, but that protection never comes back my way. What if EMMA experiences social awkwardness and is confronted with a man asking for her number while she’s on the job in a customer-facing role, and she knows that she can be fired if her response isn’t endearing, photogenic, cute, or cuddly? Sometimes it manifests in ways that make men respond with extreme anger or violence toward her? I have had to spend my entire life making all of my responses endearing, photogenic, cute, or cuddly despite what I experience internally because I have been shown I will absolutely bear consequences of not doing so.

      Why is this logic mainly used to play devil’s advocate for the men?

  114. Jammer*

    Alison, thank you for this thoughtful response. I have a coworker who frequently gets unwanted attention from our male customers and I have wondered why she doesn’t tell them clearly to stop. You really changed my thinking about what this situation might be like for her.

  115. Teri*

    I’ve had terrifying encounters with men.

    – Walking to work at 5:30am (had an early shift) in a not so great area of downtown Toronto, and being followed by a dude in his car, who eventually lowers his window and starts asking for directions (as an excuse to talk to me), then asking where I am going. Told him I was omw to work and since it was Canadian Thanksgiving, he started arguing with me that I couldn’t be working today, blah blah blah. Then he asked for my number, and I tell him I’m not interested, which results in him arguing again, so I tell him I’m married and to leave me alone. He gave up and left, but it could have ended really badly.

    – Waiting for the streetcar, minding my own business and with my headphones on, when these guys in a car start hollering at me. I tried ignoring them as much as I could, but they kept trying to get my attention. Told them I wasn’t interested and they just started to whine and it almost got hostile but then my streetcar arrived. There were men standing by and they did nothing. I was worried the guys would still be there after my errand. Thankfully they weren’t.

    – Way way back I was waiting for the bus near my work to get back home and this dude decided he had to talk to me. He was making me very uncomfortable from the beginning. He got off at the same stop to transfer on another bus and insisted on getting my phone number. Tried to give him a fake one but HE WENT AND CALLED IT. So I begrudgingly give me my actual number. I proceeded to ignore his calls by turning off my phone for the remainder of my commute. When I turned it back on, he had left 3 voicemails (which at the time was the maximum so it was now full). I didn’t hear from him until like a year later when I had a new phone and my dad had taken my old one. I looked at the texts and there was one that was full of insults and I figured it was the same guy. Blocking numbers wasn’t possible back then.

    That’s just a few of my experiences.

  116. Melissa*

    I wouldn’t tell Emma to give him a clear no, or suggest that she did anything wrong, but I might mention that you’re on board with her (any employee) saying something along the lines of “company policy says we can’t give personal information to clients.”

  117. Lifeandlimb*

    Just taking this opportunity to offer a friendly reminder that asking people out while they are working is usually a BAD IDEA. Do not do it.

    They are in work mode, and you are likely to catch them totally off guard and distract them from work. Furthermore, in work mode people are often friendlier to strangers than they normally would be, so this does not create an accurate read of their interest in you.

    If they like you so much, they will ask YOU out!

    If you feel the neeeeed to express your interest (see above first), you may try gently inviting them to an event or offering your contact info in a way that they will have time to mull it over later and respond on their own time.

    I repeat: I don’t care what the movies or your parents told you; asking people out while they are working is a BAD IDEA.

  118. Ur hd RN bc to*

    This really seems like one where contacting a network of other gym managers, like in a social media group for them, would make sense. I am a regular gym-goer, and in my observation the man who lingers a bit too long talking to the instructor after class is a common character, and there has to be some usual approach for dealing with the situation.

  119. We're really blaming him here?*

    The comments are really bending over backwards here to cast this dude – repeatedly described as “respectful and nonthreatening” – as a villain for the crime of not reading her mind. Cast this logic with players of different demographics and it just looks silly.

    His crimes: Speaking with her in a public setting, clearly communicating his interest, asking for her phone number (i.e. – her consent to continue pursuing her socially), accepting that number when she chose to give it to him, and making the assumption that he could take her statements at face value.

    “Person A is hesitant to communicate clearly to Person B, who has been consistently polite and respectful, because people who *look like* person B might have reacted poorly in the past… It would be wrong of us to expect Person A to engage in honest adult conversations. Clearly the person at fault for this mess is Person B! When they asked for a phone number, and the response was ‘Yes’ they should have known this person really meant ‘no’. How dare they miss the obvious unspoken subtext, and put the emotional labor of answering a yes/no question honestly upon Person A!”

    Imagine a letter from a leader about a male manager who is hesitant to give honest feedback to a female employee, because last year a different female employee had a meltdown and tried to get him fired for harrasment after he tried to tell her why she kept losing clients. Would he get the same kid gloves around his emotional decision making? Would the feedback be “Sure, Randall could have given her clear feedback. But it’s understandable that he didn’t, and the last thing you should do as his boss is to tell her she needs to.”??

    1. frustratedTrainee*

      Your example is kind of a false equivalency here – one female employee having a meltdown and trying to get him fired would not be equivalent to a lifetime of violent and threatening situations from female employees in general with no back-up from the police, your boss, anyone in your life, etc.

      And people shouldn’t be asking for someone’s number while they’re at work, especially in a customer facing role, especially when one is a customer. There’s way too much pressure on them to just say yes and be bubbly or suffer work consequences. This particular man isn’t responsible for the fact that society is like that but yeah, he needs to be aware of it. People shouldn’t be hitting on waitresses who are working at their restaurant when they ask, either.

    2. Jennifer Strange*

      Asking out someone in a service role is never a good idea. There is a power imbalance that can make it feel difficult for them to say no.

  120. Heather*

    You can create a company policy and send it out to all staff and members. This is good for many reasons but it also gives an out to employees when approached.

    “Fraternizing between staff and members is strictly prohibited. If you have questions about the class you can call the club’s main desk.” or even, “Sorry, we have a strong no fraternization policy at Y club.”

    It also gives Emma/you to tell this man to no longer contact Emma moving forward.

  121. Aleigh*

    Thank you Alison for your response defending Emma. It is hard to have to be nice to people as customers and they show interest in you. I’m a fitness instructor as well and I have had a few men make me very uncomfortable at the gym. Luckily my manager backed me up.

  122. rebelwithmouseyhair*

    OP it is time to introduce robust policy to protect your staff. No staff members are allowed to give out their phone number or any identifying info bar their first name, and even that may be fictional if they prefer.
    You put this as a clause in whatever the client signs when signing up for classes.
    Then you take Ryan to one side after his class and tell him it has come to your attention that he asked for an employee s number. You explain the new policy and ask him to sign the new contract. Refusal to do so leads to immediate banning. You get all other clients to sign too.

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