US franchise chain deals with sexual misconduct claims

Cases of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ or sexual misconduct are regular headline news at the moment.

So what would happen if an accusation was made against a franchisee or franchisor?

It’s happened in the US, where recent allegations claim the Massage Envy franchise has had more than 180 claims of sexual misconduct by their therapists in the last few years.

Massage Envy CEO Joe Magnacca told reporters “It has shaken us and we’re looking for ways to do more,” according to Associated Press.

Magnacca said despite a loyal customer base there has been a moderate decline in membership since the allegations came to light on BuzzFeed.

“From a business perspective, we have certainly seen the impact.”

BuzzFeed reports that many of the 180 people who have filed sexual assault lawsuits, police reports and other sexual misconduct complaints against Massage Envy spas, their employees and the franchisor believed their claims were mishandled or ignored.

Yesterday the company released a letter from Magnacca, outlining the latest actions to address the situation.

“Throughout Massage Envy’s 15-year history, safety in the treatment room has been – and always will be – paramount. The recent, heartbreaking stories of sexual assault suffered in Massage Envy franchise locations caused us to take a hard look at our business and at how we protect the members and guests who have placed their trust in the brand,” the letter reads.

The franchisor has introduced a six point plan, the Massage Envy Commitment to Safety, which focuses on prevention, reporting, investigations, review, support and guidance.

“We are mandating updated background screening for all massage therapists on an annual basis. We’re also launching a fully-automated, third-party system with UBS (Universal Background Screening), consistently rated the country’s top background screening company, that tracks compliance of service providers’ employment requirements in real time.”

An anti-sexual violence organisation will review policies and procedures, including reporting and investigation.

“We are requiring that if a client makes an allegation of sexual assault, the franchisee will provide the client with contact information for local law enforcement and offer a private room to complete the call.

“We believe the work we’re doing today can serve as a solid foundation for change across the industry, and we’re working with industry groups – like the American Massage Therapy Association – to move that conversation forward,” wrote Magnacci.

Australian business

The Massage Envy franchise has been operating in Australia for more than a year under the management of Collective Wellness Group.

CWG CEO Arthur McColl emphasised the comprehensive and localised training and procedures in place across the Australian network.

“As the master franchisor for Massage Envy in Australia, we’re dedicated to providing our franchisees with the guidance, protocols and policies they need to operate a safe and successful business.

“We’re hands on with our franchisees and we employ a considered and stringent process for franchisee recruitment, ensuring franchisees share our ethos and commitment to delivering a high-quality, reliable service.”

McColl said the company’s employment policies ensure every member of the Massage Envy franchise in Australia – whether it be franchisees, therapists or clinic staff – must complete a Police Check and Working With Children Check before starting work with Massage Envy.

“We further strongly recommend that our franchisees employ therapists that are registered with an accredited massage association in Australia,” he said.

“We supply ongoing human resource (HR) support to all of our Massage Envy franchisees in Australia, with every owner provided access to an online HR platform and HR advisor hotline they can refer to for prompt guidance and support in the event of an enquiry or incident. In addition, all Massage Envy employees in Australia are provided with access to an HR advice line.”

Putting procedures in place to handle complaints of sexual misconduct

So what steps should franchisors take to deal with claims of sexual harrassment?

HR specialist Olivia Bates at HR Central suggests there are ways to ensure compliance and risk management remain in place for the franchisor and franchisees.

“It is critical for franchisors to have effective policies and procedures in place, encompassing Code of Conduct and Professional Standards of Behaviour, Bullying and Harassment including Sexual Harassment, along with an outline of Disciplinary Action if these standards aren’t met. This ensures that you have evidence to prove this is what you expect from your franchisees.

“Sexual harassment is becoming more and more prevalent all over the world at the moment, and the penalties are severe.

“There are both financial and cultural repercussions, including criminal penalties for severe cases. From having businesses close down indefinitely, along with huge compensation payouts, to the breakdown of families and enforced rehabilitation, the impact for both the perpetrator and the victim can live on forever.

“And now with the new Vulnerable Workers Bill, franchisors are more at risk then ever before.”

Bates suggests franchisors offer informative training workshops to franchisees and their employees determining what constitutes sexual harassment and victimisation both internally and externally.

“This is paramount in following effective risk management as a franchisor,” she said.

“It is also critical for further protection to have in place detailed and legally ratified franchisee agreements, which outline what may constitute a breach by a franchisee and the consequences relating to this.”