Whose Clients are They?

By Kenn Howard
[A Question of Ethics]

Dear Kenn,

I work as a massage therapist on staff at a salon, but I’m ready to move on. Over the four years I’ve been here, I’ve built up a faithful clientele. I have a number of regulars who don’t want to see any of the other therapists here. I’m planning on leaving this salon in a few months and opening my own shop. Is there any reason I can’t invite my clients to my new office? I mean, they’re my clients and they would want to come to me anyway.

—Ever Eager


Dear Eager,

You have labored to do your best work and you have built up some considerable loyalty and comfortable relationships. To you, these patrons are your clients. Your boss has labored to set up a comfortable business and offers a range of quality services, one of which is massage. To her, these patrons are her customers. Does this difference of perspective matter? You bet it does.

Ethics demands that we ask if your boss sees the situation the same way. She is the one who found the location, applied for all the legal clearances, took the risk, and set up her own business. She takes care of the bookkeeping, purchasing, taxes, utilities, and advertising (to bring in the customers you work on). Then she hired you. She provides you with the comfortable space where you do massage. Depending on your arrangement with her, she may even supply your materials. You are a hired hand, so to speak—one of many who helps keep her business thriving. When you leave, she will find someone else to work on “your” clients.

I understand that this is the situation as you see it: You’ve worked hard for all these years. You’ve satisfied a number of clients who repeatedly seek your services. You are the one who did all the bodywork, filled in the intake forms, designed sessions, and used your hands for an hour at a time. You are the one who preached the gospel of health with unbounded goodwill. You are a massage guru.

The reality is that the owner probably sees these clients as her customers. If you invite these massage clients to your new business, it is the same as telling them not to patronize the salon. You can imagine that this may irritate your boss.

If you’re still not convinced, look at how the money flows. Dollars go from the client’s pocket to the salon, and then the salon pays you. Why is this important? This system helps define the employer/employee relationship. I’ll give you a hint: they are not your clients.

One more thing: when you were hired, did you set up a noncompete agreement?  A noncompete agreement would be your promise that, if you left this salon, you would not compete with them according to certain conditions. If you have this agreement—written or verbal—your question is answered. If there is no agreement, she has no legal power over the where and when of your new business, but you don’t want to burn bridges either. You may also ask her how she would like to partner with you in telling clients about your departure. She may send you off with her blessing. Probably not. If you don’t want to ask her because you are afraid of what she will say, you already know the answer.

  Kenn Howard is a massage therapist, NCBTMB-approved provider of ethics workshops, and instructor of ethics for the past 14 years. Contact him at kenn@panaceainstitute.com.