If you're a studio or gym owner, chances are you started your career working as a trainer for someone else. You obeyed their rules, until you decided that you could do it better. Then, with starry eyes and high ideals, you flung the doors open to your own place, confident that, with your great reputation as a trainer, business would be good. Satisfied clients quickly filled every line in your scheduler, so you brought another trainer aboard, then another, and so on.
Suddenly, you found yourself with a team, operating without a playbook. Lack of organization didn't matter much when it was just you, the consummate and professional trainer, shooting from the hip and hitting the mark every time. It does matter, however, when trainer number four arrives for a session with a hole in his shorts, a toothpick in his mouth and sits during half the session.
These weren't items you thought to cover during his training period. It never occurred to you that you needed to specify things, to create rules for things, that to you had always seemed like such obvious "no-no's" in this business. Besides, it isn't your style to rule with an iron fist. But as infractions to policies that don't exist become more prevalent, like using the phone excessively for personal calls and blowing off studio cleaning duties because there are no consequences, you realize you need to step up and lead this team.
That's what an employee manual or handbook is all about: leading your team. It's about creating a fair playing field where all your employees — whether they are contract, hourly or salary — know what's expected of them. Without it, you are making promises in the dark, and you have no consistent recourse when things fall apart.
I know because, until recently, I was one of the majority of small business owners, and probably the vast majority of training studio owners, who didn't have an employee handbook. It wasn't that I was resistant to the idea, it was that my business boomed from the minute I opened 
my doors. Since then, I've been so consumed with keeping up that I never made time to write the handbook and to get ahead. I know now that was a mistake. It is much more difficult to impose policies and behavior expectations retroactively. In hindsight, I would have made this a priority from the beginning.
 
Why Have an Employee Manual?
Small business experts say these are some of the key reasons why small businesses need a handbook:
 
·         In the absence of a policy, past and present practices become policy. In other words, once a behavioral precedent has been set, that becomes the law of your studio, whether you like it or not. Because I ran my studio for more than a year without an employee handbook, I saw behaviors like arriving just when a client session started, rather than 10 minutes early like I preferred, become the standard. It was only when I had it in writing that trainers were expected to be at the studio 10 minutes before a session to be considered "on time" and that there were specific consequences for not being "on time" that the behavior began to change.
·         Small companies must comply with most of the same laws as large companies. At five employees, most state anti-discrimination laws apply. At 15 employees, the Civil Rights Acts, Americans with Disabilities Act and Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act apply. Make sure your employee handbook explicitly shows that you comply with these laws. It is always a good idea to have a lawyer review your employee handbook.
·         Communicating mutual expectations about time-off entitlements, performance and behavior expectations may reduce liability. If policies aren't communicated in writing, there is always room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Get clear by putting it in ink.
·         A well-written "at-will employment" disclaimer, outlining the employer's and the employee's legal right to terminate the employment relationship at any time, can strengthen a business owner's right to terminate an employee. This is a paragraph that might be handy to have in legalese. Check with your lawyer; he or she probably has a stock "at-will employment" disclaimer.
·         Employees want to see the same standard applied to everyone. What may seem to you at first as rigid rules is really a way of treating your folks fairly and giving them the opportunity to succeed. If you're making up your policies, rewards and consequences as you go, there will be inequity and, ultimately, resentment.
 
What Should the Handbook Entail?
A good place to start is to consider all of the information that a new hire might want to know. What are the things you tell a new trainer during his or her training period? Do you cover your dress code, what you expect of them during the training session and chores they must do following the session? Cover, in writing, all the procedures the trainers and other employees are responsible for within your business.
Then, think about the areas of your business where confusion or conflict might arise. If not specifically laid out, consequences can seem random and biased. By clearly delineating what your consequences are for certain behaviors, or lack of behaviors, you remove yourself from being the inequitable tyrant. Instead, you become the enforcer of a fair plan that applies to everybody.
Try to foresee problems that you haven't had to deal with, and create policies for those situations as well. When I was writing the dress requirements section of my trainer handbook, I specified that trainers must wear black shorts, long enough to cover their rear end but not so long that the hemline drops below the knee. I've never had a female trainer who had her cheeks hanging out the back of her shorts or a male trainer wear shorts so baggy he could pack a semi-automatic weapon, but I have seen trainers in other facilities in just such attire. Knowing that our more mature and upper-income clientele doesn't appreciate that type of fashion statement — and neither do I — I wanted to eliminate the possibility of that ever coming into my studio.
Don't get so specific that you back yourself into a corner if a person needs to be let go. A terminated employee may be able to hold you liable or in violation of contract, if procedures aren't followed to a tee before the firing. You want to clearly communicate procedures and consequences, but you don't want to have to keep a toxic trainer around for weeks or months longer than necessary just because you haven't given yourself an out. Clearly state as many offenses as you can conjure up, like lying, stealing, causingharm to a client, publicly disparaging your business, etc., that an employee or contractor can be fired immediately for doing.
Use your handbook as a way to communicate your vision, direction and passion. Before getting into any of the procedures and rules, write an overview and philosophies section that gives new employees history on your company, how your business is superior to others and the direction and achievements the company will see in the future. Get your people fired up about working on your team, and then the procedures and policies will resonate with integrity and fairness rather than just short-lease authority.
Finally, include a page at the end of the manual — to be signed, dated and returned to you — that is an acknowledgement that the employee has received the manual, understands its contents, has had opportunities to ask questions and agrees to follow it. Called an "employee acknowledgment," this is a critical piece to avoiding statements like "But I didn't know you wanted that!" or, worse yet, the claim of ignorance and accusation of your negligence after firing. I think it is advantageous to read the entire manual to your staff and go over it one-on-one with new hires.
 
Your employee handbook will be a living document. Don't think that once it's written, it's done. Continually grow it as your business flourishes and as you learn from experience. Your fitness business is only as strong as your team. If your team doesn't know what you expect and inspect, they will never live up to their potential. And, sadly, neither will you.
Shelby Murphy is the owner/director of Shelby Murphy Training & Fitness personal training studio and Granbury Adventure Boot Camp in Granbury, Texas. Shelby Murphy Training & Fitness was awarded the 2007 Rising Star business award from the Chamber of Commerce. With four trainers and an assistant on her team, Shelby regrets not writing an employee handbook when she opened her doors in late 2006. Visit www.shelbymurphyfitness.com or www.granburybootcamp.com for more information.

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