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The Fatal Mistake Of Hiring The Tennis Pro A Member Recommends

empty tennis court

That Hire Is Always Going To Be the Member’s Pro

It happens every time. The Director of Tennis hands in his resignation and the General Manager, before the ink dries on the resignation letter, has a mailbox full of emails from members. The emails all implore the same sentiment: “Hire this guy, he’s great. He’d be great here at our club.”

Please don’t misunderstand the sentiment. It’s fantastic that members want to add to the department, or bring in someone they value to a club. It shows they care about the program and the club. However, in most cases, the members don’t know what a Director of Tennis does, day to day. That’s a good thing. It means the Director had been doing a great job: wonderful front-person with members by day, administrator and businessperson by night.

As industry consultants, we read the same book at each club. Hiring a tennis director or head pro has the same chapters and table of contents. The emails to the individual in charge of hiring comprise Chapter Two, after the politics of and the questions over the resignation fill Chapter One. Chapter Two is the only place where members include management as they talk about “our club.” What’s ironic is that it’s always going to be their club, the members’ club. And, if you hire their guy, he’s always going to be their pro.

The Members’ Sentiment Is Right.
Hiring That Professional Is Wrong

Time and again, we see it happen in the industry. And down the road, hiring a pro who initially came from a members’ reference can create issues. Word of mouth along with professional and personal references play a big part during any hiring process. But they should be kept in context.

The hiring process comes in three forms. One we term: “the closed account.” This is the toughest form for the General Manager to endure. The chairperson of the tennis committee rules. They want a particular pro. They’ve been planning this coup d’etat for years. They will not listen to anyone or anything else. Handpicked… It was always going to be this pro. Often, the club will cover this up. The club manager will go through a process, taking in resumes. He or she might even post a recruitment advertisement, to cover his or her backside and the club’s reputation as a fair and equal employer. But the writing is on the wall. The pro is already hired. De facto.

Oftentimes, this is where other Directors of Tennis get their say. These other Directors are asked by the chair of the tennis or search committee or the member pushing hard for their candidate to write and call, unsolicited. There’s a planned lobbying effort on behalf of the “anointed” candidate. The club manager will receive a call from a past Director for whom the “de facto” candidate has worked with a follow-up call from that Director’s general manager. It handcuffs the hiring club manager. And the process is closed.

This is so unfortunate. The hiring of a Director of Tennis, Fitness or Head Professional is an opportunity to educate members, and sometimes, club managers, as to the industry and the position. Most members don’t know about liability on tennis courts or realize the amount of mentoring assistant professionals require. They don’t realize that more than 50 percent of a Director’s work day is spent, or should be spent, in administrative tasks. Laying out a strong job description and going through the pros and cons of the former Director is a process worth its weight in gold. It helps to outline and structure the goals and objectives of membership in accord with management requirements.

Instead, with a member having their pro hired, the pro is always that member’s pro. If club management or another member has a legitimate issue or grievance, or another staff member feels differently about a methodology, the Director will rely on the member who hired him or her and lasso that member into any significant discussion.

Beware the Hire from Within

The second form of hiring is from within the club or facility. The Director leaves and the member sentiment is: “We need to hire from within. Tradition. Our club knows Tony, the Head Pro. He’s put his years in as number two. Let’s move him up. It’s the right thing to do.”

Again, the opportunity to educate by working through a full national search is lost. The department continues on and members have little, if any, idea of what a modern-day program may or should look like. They’ve had the same Director for, say, 20 years and now they are moving up his right-hand person to continue the same, banal programming for another 20. If the outgoing director were named John, the new pro being pushed up is always going to be “John’s guy” or girl as the case may be. It’s usually not a healthy or long-term tour of duty upon ascension. The denouement written a few years later is a quiet, but quick termination.

Here’s why. There’s always a group, perhaps small, but often not too small, of members who never liked the outgoing Director. And now they feel the following: “We are hiring his number two. When will our club ever learn.” They feel stuck with the same team and remnants of the former Director, even though the Director they didn’t like is gone. They don’t truly see a change in course of the program or the club. Of course, members feeling this will not make their voice known to fellow members, but they won’t be welcoming to the number two as the new Director. And they’ll let that sentiment be known when he or she becomes top dog. Eventually, the members of this group win over other members as the memory of their beloved and retired Director fades. And the new guy is quietly banished, because the hire was out of respect to the outgoing Director and not based on the qualities of his former head pro.

Cream Rises to the Top

The final option is the national search. “We will get hundreds of unqualified candidates.” We hear this all the time. We respond: “And you’ll get a handful of excellent choices.”

It’s not just the candidates, including those candidates recommended by a member, that need to go through the process. It’s the club and its members that need the process just as much. The interviews, the projects created for candidates to complete – such as drawing up a comprehensive lesson plan for a junior program – all help the club grow and mature as it goes through a transitional period.

Candidates with varying backgrounds both on and off the court possessing different business and administrative experience come to “lay out” their wares in front of members who have rarely or never conducted a search for this role. Members are truly unaware of what a Director of Tennis or Fitness does most of the day. “Aren’t they just the front-of-house at the tennis courts or in the gym?” We hide our smile as we begin to help outline the job description from budgeting for and retaining staff, from planning resurfacing to estimating liability and workers’ compensation insurance, from ordering and investing in inventory to approving new logo artwork.

Through this process, the cream rises to the top. Based on not just one call from a former boss, but on six to eight references from colleagues for whom the candidate worked and from others who were mentored by the candidate, the cream rises to the top. As interviews across zoom and skype help to create a fluid list of top candidates and a careful review by non-biased eyes look at verified experience, the cream rises to the top.

Don’t Be Bamboozled

The above experiences come in various shapes and sizes. A Head Pro advises the hiring of a friend for an Assistant Pro role. Again, that new hire will always be the Head Pro’s pro.

And it occurs right on down the line. Club managers and Directors are besieged yet again when a Head Pro leaves. Members know that getting their choice in at number two could lead to number one, with the hiring from within a stoic tradition at many institutions.

This November U.S. voters will have the choice to elect an incumbent or a former insider. We as voters have that right. Club members want that right too with their department heads. This year might see a lack of debate and discussion given the effects of Covid-19. The national search has already been truncated. A Senator from Vermont was shortchanged. We might not be fully educated as to the incumbent and the challenger, who we all view as the previous guys’ guy. Similar to what happens when hiring a Director of Tennis or Fitness isn’t it? But we have no excuse after Covid-19 not to go through the process, educate ourselves, and find the right candidate as the cream rises to the top.

Ed Shanaphy is President of, a subsidiary of SBW Associates, Inc, which is the country’s leading consultancy for country clubs. specializes in hiring and retaining tennis and fitness staff and management of club tennis and fitness departments on a permanent and temporary basis.

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Exempt versus Non-Exempt Tennis Professionals – The FLSA On The Courts

Our leisure industry, and golf and tennis particulary, is lumped dangerously in with every other industry and falls under federal legislation just like any other business in the USA.

Just as there are rules governing the independent contractor and whether the IRS will see an independent contractor as a club employee and fall under the tax umbrella, so are there also stipulations governing exempt vs non-exempt employees. These regulations only come into effect if your tennis professional is an employee of the club. Oftentimes, clubs and home owner associations make the error in creating an independent contractor position to avoid these pitfalls within the employment legislation.

To try and make complicated legislation simple for the purpose of this article, an exempt employee is not due overtime pay. A non-exempt employee is due overtime pay when over 40 hours in one week or holiday pay comes into effect. The legislation falls under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the act itself defines an exempt employee as such:

  1. The employee must be guaranteed a salary that equates to no less than $455
    per week.
  2.  The employee’s primary duty must consist of managing the business or a
    customarily recognized department; and
  3. The employee must customarily and regularly direct the work of two or more
    other employees;
  4. The employee must have authority to hire or fire employees, or the employee’s
    recommendations as to hiring, firing, or promotion of employees must be
    given particular weight.

As you can see these points can be hazy given the position of a Director of Tennis, Head Tennis Professional or an Assistant Tennis Pro. An IRS fact sheet that can help any understanding of any exemption is located here: IRS Exempt Employee Fact Sheet

Almost on an annual basis, we hear of cases where tennis professionals have sued the club at which they work under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Each case is an employee by employee investigation as each case has its own characteristics and merits its own investigation.

Some of the points that have been raised previously by disgruntled tennis employees are as follows:

  • Time that is spent with members or players before and after lessons count toward hourly pay. These hours are often claimed by employees and have stood up in court as the employee is working with members on club property and providing a “concierge” service.
  • Less than 50% of time is spent managing other employees and programming. Most of the time of a head pro or assistant pro is spent on the court and therefore it is impossible for that employee to spend over 50% on managerial duties. In fact, any exempt employee must manage and be responsible for the hiring and firing of at least two full-time employees.
  • A club has docked the assistant pro for missing an afternoon. This is an immediate hint to any examiner that the employee is in fact non-exempt. Docking pay is looked badly on by examiners and should not be part of an exempt employees package.

Examples abound. And there are many ways in which a club can get itself caught in the web of legislation and defending itself during a state payroll or IRS audit. An exempt employee is one who has several classifications and because of those administrative and professional classifications, can fall foul of the federal law. Tennis and golf professionals along with fitness trainers, and even caddies, often fall within the cracks of this legislation, both at the federal and state levels and clubs end up paying overtime in back pay in court.

Before any club or human resources department draws up a contract, the club and its governing bodies should fully understand the FLSA legislation and the background in the case law.