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BODYWORK

Stress test: working out with the boss

January 16, 2006|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

The long, tough workday is finally over, highlighted by two missed deadlines, a surge of paperwork and a run-in with your supervisor. Before heading home, you decide to unwind at the company gym. Hopping on the treadmill and popping in some ear buds, you settle in for a bit of cardio and private time.

Then you realize that next to you is ... your boss.

The company fitness center, dandy perk that it is, can also be a minefield of awkward situations, inelegant faux pas and professional claustrophobia.

Say you fail to wipe down the elliptical trainer after leaving copious amounts of sweat. Or you let loose with loud grunts while training. Come promotion time, don't think your manager is going to forget that. And if you're the boss who slips on the gym etiquette now and then, you can bet such actions will be hot topics around the water cooler later.

Even casual conversations in this arena can spell trouble. This is not a time to chat up your superior -- or your underling -- about work or your new puppy, especially if he values his workouts like his stock portfolio.

Craig Mutch, director of corporate staffing at Mattel Inc. in El Segundo, learned to keep it short and sweet with his boss, as in 30-second updates. "For the most part," he says, "I try to leave him alone. I don't try to press agendas."

And then there is the locker room, where neither bizarre grooming habits nor playful towel snapping is welcome. The code of conduct dictates being discreet, keeping a friendly demeanor -- and always cleaning the hair out of the sink.

As more companies build on-site fitness centers or spring for health club memberships, their employers and employees are learning to cope with the resulting awkwardness.

Some warm to the shared-gym concept more quickly than others. Richard Rozman, resident director for the Merrill Lynch office in El Segundo, routinely brings up fitness at company meetings, occasionally asking staffers from a nearby health club to talk about the importance of exercise and good nutrition.

"I tell them, I know I'm going to sound like a nagging spouse," he says, "but this is for those of you who may have eaten too much See's candy over the holidays. You can't be effective in all aspects of life unless you're in shape."

Some employees, he says, have thanked him for his efforts.

Jennifer Grossman, director of the Dole Nutrition Institute in Westlake Village, likes to bestow fitness center gift certificates on fellow employees (a small fee is charged for classes and personal training). But that, she insists, shouldn't be interpreted as an edict to feel the burn.

"I don't have any illusions that I'm going to really transform somebody's lifestyle," she says, "but if I can just get them to try it, then that's something."

Her executive assistant, however, was a little wary about joining Grossman at fitness classes. That's understandable, since Grossman has the kind of seven-day-a-week workout schedule people either covet or fear -- an eclectic mix of hard-core Bikram yoga, surfing, boot camp classes, a little running and archery.

"The first time it was like, 'Oh, she is just an incredible fitness person, and she's going to see how out of shape I am,' " says assistant Joan Luebbert. To her relief, that wasn't an issue. "It's never proven to be any kind of awkwardness," Luebbert says.

But for-the-record comments to reporters aside, Grossman acknowledges that her presence might be uncomfortable for some. She makes it a point to stand in the front of the classes in which she takes part. "I don't want anyone to think I'm looking at them," she says. "I'm not the fitness police."

The intersections of fitness and the workplace have become so common that even etiquette mavens are trying to head off potential collisions -- even as they tout the benefits of workplace workouts.

"Exercise is wonderful and can be a team-building thing," says etiquette doyenne Peggy Post, coauthor of "Emily Post's The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success." "It acts as a release when people are working hard, which is why companies are going into this."

One study released last year found that regular exercise boosted workplace performance. Among 210 English workers who took part in work-site fitness programs, about 65% rated their ability to manage time demands, output demands and mental and interpersonal performance significantly higher on days when they exercised.

But when working out in tandem with higher-ups or lower-downs, there's much to consider, Post says. Upon spotting your boss, for instance, "acknowledge the person, don't totally ignore them. But you don't have to be your boss' new best friend.... Time is precious."

And if the boss is bending your ear while you're in the throes of perfecting that six-pack? "Say something, but in a friendly way," Post advises. "You have to have your own personal time too."

Yet schmoozing during a workout does inevitably happen, and if artfully done, can mean a job upgrade.

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