From Interview to Star Employee

For Gym Operators

From Interview to Star Employee

Examine the five key components for creating an all-star team. Learn how a defined mission statement and a set of shared core values provide guidance for betting hiring and retention. This summary discusses the elements in designing a system for interviewing, onboarding, and training.

The following is a summarization of an education session from the 2016 IHRSA Convention, produced with full permission from IHRSA. The full-length video is available for purchase at

About the Speaker

Marisa Hoff, General Manager, Stevenson Fitness  

Five Key Steps to Creating Engaged and Motivated Employees

Set out to build a team with a shared common vision. A defined set of core values will serve to guide a gym operator in every decision from managing member expectations to how to hire, evaluate, and recognize staff. Shared core values drive the organization to build and lead a strong team of all-stars.


Bringing together the right people to join your team begins first with a clear vision of key objectives for staff roles. It requires an ability to communicate to potential hires the club’s shared core values. Most people are easily trained on the mechanics of the role: systems, equipment, procedures, even how to teach a class. Choose the person who is a good fit with your club’s culture and who will best represents the club when engaging with members. By initiating a hiring process founded on a system aligned with core values, you’re more likely to increase staff retention. 

Typical avenues for recruitment are job posting sites, internal promotions, and prospecting.

Promote from within the organization. Bringing someone up, for example, from front desk to group instructor assures continuity in member experience and communication. Current employees have experienced onboarding, participated in ongoing training, and are already a part of the team, saving you time and energy.

Your membership may offer prospects and recruitment possibilities. Is there a member who continually participants in classes and always knows what to do and understands the exercises? Approach members who are a potential good fit and ask if they’ve ever thought of becoming a group instructor. 

Consider people who you may meet networking or even outside of the industry. Again, you can train people on your equipment and systems; it’s critical they possess the aspirations that can deliver on your values and on the member experience.

Interview potential prospects though you may not have a current opening. Build relationships and a network of potential prospects. Invite people you meet who come across well with good qualifications and appear to be a good fit for a conversation. Explain that you don’t have a position right now, but things could change.

Make sure to respond to everyone who has shown an interest in your organization. They may not become a staff member, but they might join the club, or will certainly tell friends and colleagues about the professional and courteous exchange they had with your club.

Get to Know the Candidate

Group interviews are an efficient way to qualify potential candidates. As a first interview, the group interview will highlight the qualities you’re looking for in any position in the club. In conducting the group interview, you’ll garner insight into candidates’ sociability and interaction skills. You’ll observe the group dynamics and see who engages with others in the group.

Explain in the interview process that you’d like to get to know them better. Talk about the club’s history and its culture. Let candidates know that at the end of the interview if there is a mutual interest, they’ll go on to a second interview.  

Develop questions that address the qualities you’re looking for and that fit with your club’s culture. Try to create open-ended questions that allow the candidate to demonstrate their strengths and characteristics. For example:

  • “What are your top five?” Top five what, they might reply, which opens the possibilities to a huge range of answers, e.g. five best traits for personal trainers, five best muscle groups, five top member concerns, etc.
  • “What are you most proud of?”
  • “Tell us about a great customer service experience.”
  • “What excites you about our company?” This questions shows if people have done their research and learned something about the club. 

The secret interviewer from the book “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh, offers the ability to gain insights into a candidate indirectly. As part of the interview process have the front desk take the applicant on a short tour of the facilities. Prompt the front desk to talk with the candidate and ask questions. Later ask your staff who conducted the tour what they thought of the applicant. This provides a different perspective as the candidate won’t feel they’re being interviewed. At the same time staff feel invested in the process and often communicate qualities that you may not have seen in the applicant.

Provide the candidate with a two week pass to the facilities. If they don’t come, what does that say?

The second interview should expose the candidate to the club environment. This is an opportunity for candidates to get an up-close experience of what it’s like to be a part of your club. You might have a trainer work with a fitness manager during a session or a candidate shadow the front desk staff.


The practice of onboarding is to integrate new employees into the club environment having them acquire the knowledge, skills, and behavior required to become an effective staff member. In addition to technical or practical skills related to their specific area, make sure to provide overall gym services and product knowledge. This supports a holistic approach to delivering a quality member experience.

Cross-train department staff so they can acquire a strong knowledge base of services and products to answer general member questions and support operations. For example, if a member asks a group instructor about the hours of kid’s club because she wants to come to that instructor’s class, by giving the answer the instructor is providing convenience to the member and adding to that member’s experience.

Personal trainers should know about the different Group X classes and have experienced different classes. They’ll be better positioned to suggest classes that fit with the training program they’ve prescribed for a member. An understanding of the different classes and instructor styles prepares them to address a member’s issue should it ever comes up, improving or possibly recovering the member experience.

Instill in each new staff member an understanding of what matters most to the club. Explain the
“why” behind the club’s vision and core values, and relate them to the member experience. 

Keep Staff Engaged with Ongoing Training

The weeks and months following the onboarding process are critical to staff retention. Once hired and trained, ongoing support will help to ensure staff continue to stay engaged and perform their role at the highest level.

Hold weekly and monthly department meetings with specific themes and training goals. Have staff participate in role play to address critical service issues. Share member survey results with staff and develop solutions to improve the member experience.


Use leadership strategies that inspire your staff. Management should schedule regular hours on the floor to talk and engage with members. Have managers also spend time in areas such as the front desk, so that staff see them actively participating and to demonstrate an empathy for a staff’s role.

We manage things and we lead people. A good manager will check and verify that a list of tasks was completed. Whereas, a good leader steps in to engage the staff. A leader expresses a shared interest in the staff work process, inspiring them.

Communicate Constantly with Staff

  • Face-to-face 
  • Emails – Use this for informal recognition. This also helps to provide support for annual evaluations.
  • Internal Facebook page – This is a great way to communicate among the team.


Create a culture of gratitude. Reward staff for their efforts and recognize them for achievements. Get to know what motivates your employees.  

Types of Recognition     

  • Raise
  • Bonus
  • Surprise

Tips for Expressing Gratitude 

  • Specific – acknowledge a specific action exemplifying the club’s core values.
  • Timely – say or write something immediately; don’t wait until weeks later.
  • Frequent – make it management’s objective to express gratitude for the staff each day.

Tools for Expressing Gratitude 

  • Face-to-face
  • Emails
  • Publicly – a place which visually highlights service above self, accomplishments, etc.
  • Internal Facebook page


Conduct frequent face-to-face evaluations with staff. Mention what the employee is exceeding at, and what you’d like to see more of.  For a group instructor, a face-to-face evaluation may make note of their high energy, but also address interacting with members more. For example, “I really like your high energy, Kim. One thing I’d like to see more of is you taking the time to interact with members.” 

Formal evaluations are typically annual evaluations. Develop an annual evaluation process which matters to you, and which is based on how it fulfills the club’s core values and goals. Make evaluations relevant to the staff member’s role and responsibilities. Conduct 360 evaluations where staff and management are evaluated by their supervisor, co-workers, and their direct reports. Use staff surveys to evaluate management and overall job satisfaction.

If you implement these five key practices in alignment with a commitment to fulfill your mission and core values, then you can ensure that you’ll have the team you need to take you where you want to go.