Keep Your Stars

Association Guest Column: International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association

By Kristen A. Walsh

ith the emphasis on member retention in the fitness industry, it's easy to overlook the issue of staff attrition. However, this is unwise. Employee turnover can cost companies up to 40 percent of their annual profit, according to Workforce Management.

Turnover at U.S. health clubs was 13 percent for salaried employees and 25 percent for hourly employees, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) 2006 Employee Compensation & Benefits Report, though as Katie Rollauer, IHRSA's senior research manager, noted, "Survey participants do tend to be the most financially successful club companies."

Here, some industry experts offer 11 tips for improving employee retention:

1. TAKE YOUR TIME WHEN HIRING. "A lot of people get nervous if they don't have somebody to open the club," said Beth Wald, owner of HealthFit in Needham, Mass. "I would rather open the club myself than hire the wrong person."

2. ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS. "Screen applicants for personality characteristics and values that match your organizational philosophies and culture," advised Lauren Eller, HR director for Fitness Formula in Chicago.

"Prior to starting the interview process, develop a standard list of questions, with the heart of the interview focusing on behavioral-based questions," added Jennifer Mayer, regional programming director for Mercy HealthPlex in Cincinnati. "These will encourage candidates to cite specific examples of what they did in previous roles in response to situations or tasks and the effects or results of those actions."

3. ALIGN PAY STRUCTURES WITH EXPERIENCE AND EDUCATION. "Over the past few years, industry standards have forced fitness professionals to become more educated and knowledgeable," said Jodi Wright, president of FitStaff, a fitness industry placement firm.

4. HIRE OVERQUALIFIED PEOPLE...SOMETIMES. The fitness industry is an attractive employment option for baby boomers for several reasons.

"Advertise job openings in a creative way which directly seeks people who are very over-qualified but who wish to work part-time in a friendly, healthy environment from which they can benefit and get social contact with members," advised Rick Devereux, a former IHRSA executive who teaches and promotes yoga to non-traditional populations.

5. CLARIFY EXPECTATIONS "In our industry, the highest percentage of turnover occurs at entry level," said Michelle White, director of operations for L&T Health and Fitness in Falls Church, Va. "Today, the majority of entry-level employees are either members of Generation Y or mature adults who have changed career paths," she explained. "With both groups, there is often an expectation for higher starting salaries—with little to no experience—as well as comprehensive benefits and fast advancement."

6. MANAGE INDIVIDUALLY AND REWARD APPROPRIATELY. "Each team player may have different needs, goals, different personalities and motivators," Wright said. "A young, recently certified personal trainer may be motivated by recognition, title and compensation, while a more seasoned trainer might be looking for a flexible schedule and health insurance benefits in order to meet family obligations."

Understand who your employees are and what best motivates them to accomplish business goals. In addition, don't wait until an employee's annual review to acknowledge excellent performance. Tell management, other employees, customers and even the local newspaper about an employee's accomplishments.

7. BEWARE OF BURNOUT When an employee leaves, managers often rely on existing staff to pick up the extra workload. In the short term, staff members may be happy about making extra money. "However, if vacant positions aren't filled quickly, this can cause burnout, deterioration of morale and additional turnover," noted Suzanne Berthay, president of HR Pro Shop, a fitness industry HR consulting firm.

8. ENCOURAGE INVOLVEMENT. According to the IHRSA Guide to Membership Retention, club members who are involved in a variety of activities and have regular member-to-member interactions are more likely to remain members. The same concept applies to employee retention.

"Those who are more involved and invested in the company for which they work may be more likely to communicate any discontent and allow their employer the time to propose a solution," White explained. "Those who are not involved or invested in anything beyond their eight-hour day are more likely to walk away without looking back."

Encourage employees to get involved with fundraisers, social events, committees and other business units within the organization, she advised.

9. OFFER OPPORTUNITIES FOR GROWTH. "When you provide employees with growth opportunities, you give them the peace of mind of knowing that if they needed to leave for any reason, they would be employable," explained Fred Mael, an organizational psychologist and consultant who specializes in employee and customer retention. "It's the person who feels trapped who is more likely to leave or disengage while still on your payroll."

Make cross-training opportunities available to employees from the time they begin in any routine position, such as at the front desk, so that they become knowledgeable about all aspects of your business and can better contribute to the facility's overall success.

10. KNOW WHEN TO SAY GOODBYE. "Don't keep new employees for longer than a brief trial period if they are having difficulty maintaining relationships with staff or members, or if their demeanor shows signs of boredom with their role or impatience with your program," Devereux cautioned.

11. CONDUCT EXIT INTERVIEWS. This will help you determine the cause of turnover and make improvements. Although problems with supervisors are a major factor in turnover, exit surveys done on the employee's last day of work almost never turn up these issues, Mael noted. "Those employees with the foresight not to burn their bridges with a company or jeopardize future positive references will generally not mention their problems with the boss on the way out the door. In fact, exit interviews that take place months later, when employees are secure in their new jobs, elicit more candor."

Of course, some employee turnover is inevitable and can even be considered a positive development. For example, people move, retire, start their own businesses, change careers or decide to stay home to raise their children.

"We understand that people aren't going to stay here for the rest of their lives," said John Atwood, also an owner of HealthFit. "We want to create an experience for them so that when they leave, they can say, 'I really made a contribution.'"


Kristen A. Walsh manages, the fitness industry employment site for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). She can be reached via e-mail to For more information, visit

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