With sexual harassment in the spotlight, it should come as no surprise that allegations would eventually surface that impact the spa industry, as well. On Sunday, November 26, Buzzfeed News posted an investigative story titled Hands Off, an in-depth report written by reporter Katie J.M. Baker that chronicles the extensive history of sexual assault cases filed against the Massage Envy spa chain. Massage Envy is one of the first and largest massage franchise chains in the country and is a billion-dollar business known for its promise of trustworthy service at an affordable price. The recent Buzzfeed News investigation, however, found that more than 180 people have filed sexual assault lawsuits, police reports, and state board complaints against Massage Envy spas, its employees, and the national company. According to Buzzfeed, most of the women who filed the allegations say their claims were mishandled or ignored by employees and owners of individual Massage Envy spas and by the national company itself.
Lawyers for the accusing spa clients told Buzzfeed News that there are more cases where women report abuse by massage therapists to police but no arrest is made, and that Massage Envy spas sometimes offer a settlement before a suit is filed, leaving no public record. Because most sexual assault victims don’t file a report at all, many believe the number of abused spa-goers could be even higher; even Massage Envy’s own orientation manual, which discusses overall client satisfaction, warns employees that “only 4 percent of upset customers will tell you when there is a problem."
According to Buzzfeed News, a review of the company's policies on reporting improper conduct shows that the policies do more to protect the company brand than ensure customer complaints are handled appropriately. In most states, massage facilities have no legal obligation to report sexual assault claims made on their premises.
Massage Envy Franchising does not suggest its franchisees notify law enforcement or hire qualified investigators to help determine what happened after an allegation of sexual misconduct. This holds true regardless of the seriousness of the allegation, even if it involves rape. What the company tells franchisees they must do is conduct their own “prompt, fair, and thorough” investigation of any such claims, though they do not provide franchisees with the proper steps on how to do so.
A 2017 policy obtained by BuzzFeed News clarifies that in “certain situations,” a franchisee “should consider” reporting an incident to local authorities. It does not say when during the investigation that should happen. No examples are listed, beyond observing any local laws that might require it.
In 2016, Pennsylvania Congressman Pat Meehan introduce bipartisan federal legislation that would require owners and employees of massage spas to report allegations of sexual assault to police. The bill would also require spa owners to publicly display policies preventing and responding to sexual assault.
Read the full Buzzfeed News report here. And stay tuned for more on how you can protect your clients and spa from similar situations.