Photo: 181129-news-pflawsuit Former Planet Fitness manager alleges rape, 'debaucherous' corporate office environment

Planet Fitness, which has world headquarters on Liberty Lane in Hampton, is being sued by a former manager. 

During a national TV appearance last week, Planet Fitness CEO Chris Rondeau spoke about the successes of one of the largest and fastest growing fitness clubs in the country.

In an interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer on Monday, Rondeau told how the company is adding 200 new clubs a year and continuing on its mission of offering a health club that’s “comfortable” and “judgment-free.”

Planet Fitness prides itself on its trademarked “Judgement-Free Zone” slogan.

While that may be the message the company is delivering to its paying members, a lawsuit filed by a former manager who worked at its corporate headquarters in Hampton paints a very different picture. In her suit against the company filed recently in Rockingham County Superior Court, Casey Willard makes serious allegations about the work climate in the corporate office.

“The work environment at Planet Fitness’ corporate office was, to say the least, debaucherous,” the suit said.

The Dover woman, who was a manager of franchise development and construction, alleges she was subjected to sexual harassment, a hostile work environment, discrimination, and retaliation before she quit earlier this year.

Drinking games like “Fireball Friday” were commonplace in the office, she alleges, with senior management directing subordinate employees to consume alcohol during the day.

Willard also claims she was drugged and raped by another employee and his friends while on a business trip in California in 2017 and that a supervisor allegedly took advantage of her, plied her with alcohol in a hotel room while on business, and engaged in a sexual relationship that violated the company’s anti-fraternization policy.

Others in senior management also had sexually intimate relationships with subordinate employees, her suit alleges.

Planet Fitness has denied many of Willard’s allegations, calling some of them “baseless,” but insists that it did investigate her concerns and took action, including firing the two employees for violating company policies.

“At Planet Fitness we have a zero tolerance policy related to harassment of any kind and are committed to providing a safe environment for all employees,” said the company, which has promoted an anti-bullying program with the Boys & Girls Clubs.

The lawsuit comes at a time when Planet Fitness and other gyms are gearing up for new members who will join after making New Year’s resolutions to get fit. Planet Fitness is the official fitness sponsor of the Times Square New Year’s Eve Celebration in New York City.

The lawsuit also comes at a time when the company is realizing the success of offering a gym that’s inexpensive and not so intimidating for members.

In the CNBC interview, Rondeau said the company has just over 1,600 locations but hopes to eventually open as many as 4,000. The publicly traded company (NYSE: PLNT) has seen its share price double over the past year. On Friday, shares closed at $55.22, down a 1.36 percent.

Rondeau said the company has 12.2 million members — 45 percent of whom are millennials. Over the summer, the company created a program that offered free gym use for high school students, targeting the next generation of fitness club customers.

“Eighty percent of the population in the U.S. doesn’t have a gym membership. That’s who we’re really focusing on, and almost 40 percent of our members have never belonged to a gym in their life, so they don’t want to walk into a gym (with) a bunch of beautiful bodies and feel like the new kid in school and that’s what we’re really going after. Make it comfortable, judgment-free and affordable so anybody can join,” he said in the interview with Cramer.

Willard alleges the corporate office was anything but comfortable. She claims it was an “atmosphere of intimidation and domination” for younger female employees.

Her allegations echo claims made against other companies that have prompted a national conversation about harassment in the workplace.

The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence emphasized the importance of companies taking a serious look at their working environments.

It is critical that organizations and institutions take allegations of harassment and assault with the utmost seriousness, and swiftly take action to ensure their work environment is safe and healthy for all employees. Many victims of workplace harassment do not come forward out of fear of retaliation or losing their job. In order to encourage reporting and truly create a positive and professional culture, leaders must confront problematic behavior when it’s brought to their attention, and workplaces must prioritize the prevention of, and response to, harassment,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, the coalition’s director of public affairs.

She added that workplaces of all sizes should contact their local crisis center for more information about local resources, in-service training opportunities, and best practices around addressing the problems.

rockinghamnews@unionleader.com