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how do I navigate being naked around employees in a locker room? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I wanted to get your take on being nude in the workplace, specifically within a locker room setting.

I work at an upscale health and wellness facility that‘s known for exceptional locker rooms. The locker rooms have beautiful cedar wood saunas, eucalyptus steam rooms, hot tubs, rainfall showers … you name it, it’s here. My membership is complimentary, and personal use of the club is highly encouraged by both corporate and fellow club leaders. While I don’t use the club every single day, I do sometimes like to sit in the jacuzzi after a long day or I’ll take a shower before an early shift. But this is where it gets tricky.

I manage the locker room attendants. So, in theory, if I change my clothes or take a shower in the locker room, I’m essentially getting naked in front one of my own team members. I try to change respectfully by diverting my eyes, facing a wall, and always changing with a towel wrapped around my body, but my team members still manage to find me. For example, one of my team members came up to me when I was in my underwear, started a friendly (not work-related) conversation with me, and then proceeded to get completely naked next to me. I was stunned! Another team member also found me when I was walking to the showers in just a towel and asked me to help her fix a piece of equipment … in just my towel.

My company doesn’t have any specific policies related to team member locker room etiquette, so we just follow the general club guidelines that paying members do. I’m also not in a position to create any of these policies.

How can I protect myself from an HR standpoint when using the locker room with team members? Am I being too prudish? I get that it’s totally normal to be naked in a locker room, and I’m totally comfortable at other gyms, but something about being naked with my team members feels icky.

What further complicates the situation is that I’m gay. And being LGBTQIA+ in a gendered space is scary! Despite having a diverse team that generally seems to like me, my big fear is that one of them may eventually grow disgruntled over something silly and retaliate by saying that I acted inappropriately towards them in the locker room. There are obviously no cameras within the locker room, so, if that were to happen, there would be no way to disprove it. And yes, this fear may seem a little off-base, but it’s coming from recent personal experience. I had to terminate a team member last week, who, unbeknownst to me, was harboring a lot of homophobic feelings towards me. During the termination, he shouted homophobic slurs at me, threatened me, invaded my personal space, and even tore up things off of my desk before being walked out by security … yet he remained cordial to my straight assistant throughout the entire episode. Ultimate, that outburst scared me and showed me that I’ll never truly know what my team members are thinking or, frankly, if they have it out for me.

So, again, I would love to know how I can protect myself and still use the locker room amenities like every other team member and club leader does. I’m also open to any advice on how to move on from that team member’s homophobic outburst.

Well … because you manage locker room attendants, it’s pretty likely that they’ve developed a high baseline comfort level with nudity at work, since it’s built into their jobs. Just as you tend to get used to anything your job gives you a lot of exposure to, I assume they’re pretty blasé about locker room nudity (and that’s further evidenced by some of the behavior you’ve seen from them).

But yeah, I can see it feeling a lot weirder when you’re their manager. I think changing under a towel, as you’re doing, is a sensible way to navigate it, particularly since lots of people do that in locker rooms anyway. You could even change in a stall if it felt more comfortable to you. Some people would feel excessively prudish using a stall, so it really comes down to what you’re the most comfortable with. But it’s reasonable to decide that this isn’t just a locker room to you, it’s also your workplace, and so you’re going to take some extra privacy measures you wouldn’t take at the gym down the street.

However! You said you’re not in a position to create any locker room policies for your team … and I want to push back on that. You manage the locker room staff, so you should have standing to do that. Why not have a team guideline that says something like, “When an employee is using our locker rooms as a member, please respect their privacy and do not approach them while they’re changing, showering, or relaxing.” That could end up helping not just you, but others on your team too, since you might not be the only one who would prefer to be granted an imaginary shroud of invisibility while you’re doing those things.

Your concerns about being LGBTQIA+ in a gendered space add a different element to all of this. After your fired employee’s homophobic outburst, did you happen to report that to HR? If you haven’t yet, you should — and that could be an opening to ask HR for their input on this concern too. You could frame it as, “Especially given what happened last week, how do I protect myself from an HR standpoint when my team’s work puts them around nudity — and sometimes my or other employees’ nudity?” At a minimum, you might get some peace of mind from going on the record with your concerns — and frankly, it’s something that should already be on their radar given the nature of the work, so they might have a thoughtful response. (Of course, in a bad company there’s a risk you could hear, “Yeah, just don’t use the locker room then” — so you’d want to know your company here.) And either way, make sure they know about that homophobic outburst; they have an obligation to make it clear there’s no place in your company for that.

I also asked Jeff Main from Point of Pride, an organization that has expertise on a variety of LGBTQ+ topics, including the workplace and sex-segregated spaces, to weigh in. Jeff pointed out that locker rooms are “incredibly complicated and highly charged spaces,” and he said:

The situation you described is complex and it’s certainly understandable there didn’t seem to be a clear next step. After addressing the concern of immediate safety and well-being, protecting your employment status comes next in terms of priorities. Unfortunately, when it comes to potential misconduct accusations (or recourse if you face anti-LGBTQ+ behavior in general), it’s important to know your rights as you are your own best advocate. I’d recommend you reach out to local LGBTQ+ centers for personalized guidance on discrimination and harassment protections – CenterLink’s directory tool is a great place to start. Particularly in the wake of the devastating recent Supreme Court case, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. There are resources available to help you understand what your rights and protections are in an ever-shifting political landscape.

That said, identifying and engaging allies is an important part of developing a plan. Are there knowledgeable and supportive team members who might be able to assist you? Often managers and HR representatives are the first point of contact when navigating a case like yours but they aren’t always versed in how to support LGBTQ+ employees. Perhaps there is a coworker who can advocate on your behalf? Or, you might even find someone who can be your locker room buddy. Allies can have some really incredible super powers and a friend that can help protect a space for you is definitely one of them. If knowledgeable and supportive managers and HR reps aren’t available and you can’t find a trusted ally to support you, the journey might be a little bit harder but there are still things you can do.

A lot of people underestimate the amount they can contribute to culture change. You mentioned not being able to make policies – do you know that for sure? One of the powerful things about inclusive policies and practices is that they wind up benefiting everyone: policies that support you using the on-site facilities as a member and not just a team member wind up also supporting your employer by clearly demarcating time on and off the clock, which protect labor rights and the company. While it’s obviously preferable to create inclusive policies because of the importance of creating a safe and affirming space, sometimes even the smallest crack can bring light to a dark room…

When it comes to your former teammate’s outburst, I’m so sorry you experienced that. … Your letter didn’t mention any response to this incident from your employer (either your manager or your company) and unfortunately, this is something that happens far too often. It can be easier to assume that everyone has the same response to a situation (even when they don’t), rather than have an uncomfortable conversation that ultimately helps build a stronger, more resilient team. As a manager, you help define and defend the space for your team, especially when it comes to establishing that threats and violence are never acceptable. Even if your manager isn’t knowledgeable about supporting the LGBTQ+ community, the type of behavior you described has absolutely no place at work and that’s something that everyone should be on the same page about. If it hasn’t been addressed yet, now could be an opportunity for all staff to come together and discuss what happened openly and help ensure such an experience never happens again (for both staff or a client of the facility.)

Finally, we want to note that the reality is that a lot of the time members of historically excluded communities wind up assuming a disproportionate amount of responsibility and emotional labor when it comes to making a safe and inclusive workspace. We truly wish that were not the case but as a society, we’re not at (yet) at a point where people impacted by exclusionary policies and practices don’t have to constantly fight to make space for themselves.


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