4 Key Management Learnings from the Massage Envy Scandal


Many will recall the sexual assault scandal that rocked Massage Envy franchises in late 2017. With any event like this, there will always be at least one key management learning, usually more. Sometimes the learning is based on what was done right, sometimes from the mistakes that were made. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, it would wise for all of us in the spa industry to look a little closer at the events that unfolded. We should be asking what are the key management learnings to be had.

Coincidentally, a few weeks earlier, I had written an article titled Sex and the Spa Industry. This was on the back of the fallout in the entertainment industry following numerous celebrities being called out for sexual harassment. In that article I asked if we, the spa industry, were putting our collective heads in the sand when it comes to sexual harassment. My focus was, as you might expect, on the situation where the therapist is the one being harassed or assaulted. I also suggested it would be naïve to assume there aren’t some massage therapists guilty of this too. Little did I know just how big of a story this would become a few weeks later.

Management Learning #1 – Education

The first step is always education. Not just training. Education. Everyone in your spa needs to be educated about the issue, how to recognise it, how to respond to it and how to cope with the after affects. It seems like such an obvious thing to say, and it is, but so many spas simply have not done this. Instead, they’ve chosen to just not speak about it and hope nothing happens. Of course, ignorance is never a great strategy.

Your clients, customers and guests also need to be educated too. They need to know what is acceptable and what is not. Unfortunately, educating consumers is not so easy. The only way this can really be done at the spa level is by spelling out the policy for all to see. Maybe that’s a Rules and Regulations poster on the wall? Maybe it’s a line or two on the Client Waiver form they sign during the consultation? Ultimately, you need to find a level of comfort with getting the message through to your clients.

Management Learning #2 – Documentation

Once you’ve educated everyone on the realities of sexual harassment, abuse and assault, it is vital to establish a set of very clear procedures and policies in place around the issue, for both therapists and clients. Again, many spas simply do not have this in place. The SOPs around this need to cover as many scenarios as possible. Otherwise, you leave the door open for someone to say their situation was a bit different from the SOP so they didn’t know what they should do.

The clients too need some form of documentation. Adding a Behaviour Standard to the Client Waiver form might be one way to achieve this. But of course, just having it there on the form, in the fine print, may not be enough. Most clients will sign the form without reading it in detail. The fact that they signed it may (or may not) clear you of any legal obligation if it gets to court, but the whole point of this is to prevent the incident in the first place.

Management Learning #3 – Action

As we saw with the Massage Envy case, many of the alleged victims didn’t know where to turn. Some reported it to the spa manager and even the franchise owner, but when that person dismissed it or brushed it aside, the client had nowhere else to go. Filing a police report seems like the obvious answer but there are a few dynamics working against that. Firstly, there’s the embarrassment some clients would feel. There’s also a fear that victims are sometimes not taken seriously, or even worse, assumed to be complicit. And I think for some clients they may even feel like a police report is too extreme. They reconcile themselves by saying it wasn’t a full-on assault. Maybe it was just an errant hand or a careless stroke. They convince themselves it’s not worth an official police report.

Whether for clients or staff, everyone needs to be clear on what steps they can take when sexual harassment or assault occurs. For the big companies, an anonymous Customer Complaint Hotline might be the answer. If you are just a small owner/operator, like so many spas are, that hotline number may have to be your cell phone. You want to make sure everyone knows you take this very seriously and you’re there to help.

I recall when I worked for the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games we had what was called the Doctrine of No Surprises. I had the direct numbers for the CEO’s office, home, cell and even fax (it was in 2000 remember). If I faced any problem that might end up in the papers tomorrow, I was obligated to call him – 24/7. He wanted to make sure the organisation was able to get out in front of any issues. Tackle them head on. If it’s your business, you want to do the same when it comes to sexual harassment and worse.

Management Learning #4 – Accountability at Speed

The first official response I saw from Massage Envy after this story broke was from a senior manager who basically said it’s not their fault. What they tried to do was shift the blame to franchise owners of these spas, not the brand. To be fair, the franchisees absolutely did have the responsibility here, but so did the Massage Envy brand. It’s always the brand’s fault, even when it’s not. Customers have trusted in the brand. If the franchisee has failed, the client still sees that as the brand that has failed them, and rightly so. If brands want to benefit from the upside of brand recognition when it’s going well, they have to also accept it when things are not.

In the court of public opinion, speed matters. The CEO of Massage Envy didn’t release a formal statement till more than a week after the story broke. Too late. By then they have already been judged. No doubt he was acting on the smart advice of legal experts. I am not a lawyer, but in my mind Massage Envy missed the chance to take control of the narrative. I think the CEO’s letter was actually quite good. He talked about zero tolerance. He said ‘I am sorry’. Significantly, and I think very intelligently, he said they are ‘talking to victims and victim rights groups, industry associations, and sexual violence experts to help define our plan’. It was, I think, the right response. It just came a week too late.

Hindsight is not always 20-20. Even after the fact, we don’t always get all the context around which decisions were made and actions taken. But it does give the rest of us the opportunity to do a little self-audit. Failing to do so is just irresponsible.