When the facts change, I change my mind; What do you do?

An update on Massage Envy

One of my former mentors, a brilliant scientist who revolutionized the way we view mental health, was fond of ending his talks with the following statement and question : “When the facts change, I change my mind; what do you do?”. It was a nod to the fact that scientists, like everyone else, can become wedded to their ideas and unwilling to move off of their position. In our society, having an unwavering position is often held in esteem; politicians who adapt their views over time are portrayed as flip-flopping.

Perhaps because I am a researcher, I am baffled by the idea that it would be a good thing to have a mindset that is completely unchanged with years of accumulated knowledge and experience.

Six months ago, I wrote an article condemning Massage Envy for their handling of sexual assaults at their franchises. After I was assaulted at a Massage Envy, I discovered there were dozens of reports of sexual assaults at Massage Envy locations across the country, and as a professor who works in the area of behavioral health, I was convinced that the company could do better. More than that — I was convinced it needed to do better.

I launched a campaign against Massage Envy. I started a change.org petition. I used social media. I worked with a reporter at Buzzfeed, who published an investigative report on sexual assault at Massage Envy. I went on Good Morning America and the Today show. At that time I thought Massage Envy represented the very worst of corporate culture: a company that cared more about its bottom line than its customers. Massage Envy’s general counsel, Melanie Hansen, and her seemingly hollow company statements responding to sexual assault, became my nemesis.

And then something extraordinary happened. I discovered that Melanie Hansen and I had a shared close friend. Her sisters had stayed at my house. I had vacationed with them. Melanie was the older sister that I had never met, and because her last name was different, I had no idea of our shared connection until our mutual friend brought our strange small world connection to our attention.

My guess is that I wasn’t Melanie Hansen’s favorite person around that time either. I now know that behind the scenes Massage Envy headquarters was in crisis mode, working around the clock to deal with the onslaught of negative media attention. But in the midst of that, Melanie did something remarkable, that ultimately changed the entire narrative of the story. She flew out to meet with me. She checked her lawyer hat at the door and instead of telling me all the reasons that the corporation was not responsible for what happened to me, she listened. She listened to my concerns about how my assault was handled, what it was like to go through a criminal trial as a victim of sexual assault, and how the experience affected my life.

And then she presented me with a plan. It was a draft of the plan that would eventually become the public Massage Envy Commitment to Safety, and she invited me to be a part of it. The plan included everything that I had asked the company to put into place, and more. It was the action that I had been calling for. And now I had an invitation to work with them on crafting and implementing it.

Massage Envy flew me out to their headquarters. I met their CEO, their senior leadership, and their staff. And I was greeted not as you might expect for someone who had tried to bring down the company (which I admittedly dreamed about in the aftermath of my assault); instead, I was welcomed warmly and genuinely, with kind words and thanks for speaking out about my assault and how the company could do better.

I am now a part of Massage Envy’s new Safety Advisory Council, which consists of Massage Envy leadership and senior representatives from RAINN, the nation’s largest organization devoted to preventing sexual assault and supporting victims, as well as leaders from the American Massage Therapy Association, and the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards, among other experts in the area of sexual assault. We meet regularly, and are working on a comprehensive review and implementation of the policies related to prevention, how reports of assault are handled, and how they are investigated. Massage Envy is taking the lead on creating a gold standard for dealing with sexual assault, not only in its own franchises, but for the massage industry broadly. The 2018 Massage Envy national convention for all their franchisees started with an entire day devoted to safety and addressing sexual assault, led by RAINN, Melanie, and other experts in prevention and investigation of sexual assaults (and required for all franchisees to attend). I spoke at the convention to the more than 2000 attendees, and I was met with an outpouring of support. It was one of the more powerful experiences of my life.

Me at the Massage Envy convention (center) with Melanie Hansen and CEO Joe Magnacca

I am frequently asked how I feel about working with the corporation that I initially attacked for their handling of sexual assault. My response is simple: the facts have changed, and I have changed my mind.

The cynic may say that the company changed because it was forced to, and question its motives. I can only draw from my experience, and I believe that Massage Envy leadership are genuine in their commitment to tackling sexual assault. I believe this not because they say it, but because their actions support it. In my mind, it has been a model example of how a corporation should respond to sexual assault. Do I wish it had come sooner? Of course. But I have also learned that Melanie and her team have been working to put in place policies to address safety for years, in an industry that had no comprehensive, systematic practices for addressing assault. It is not dissimilar to the situation that unfolded surrounding sexual assault on college campuses, whereby increased recognition of the problem and high profile media attention led to important measures to put better policies in place. For better or worse, corporations are like people: sometimes it takes a crisis to force an issue to the top of the priority list.

For me the experience has been a powerful reminder of how, when we join our voices together, we still have the ability to create meaningful change.