Policing Professionalism

By Nina McIntosh
[Heart of Bodywork]

I’ve heard that a local massage therapist brags about being better than the other massage therapists in town. People say he makes negative remarks about our competence to his clients and to prospective clients who call for information. He has had the same training as the rest of us and as far as I know has no legitimate claim to being more skilled. I don’t know him very well and I’m not sure how—or even whether—to approach him about this. I wonder if I should just let it go.

C.S, Raleigh, North Carolina

Dear C.S.,

I understand your concerns, both about your colleague’s behavior and about how to deal with him. First, let’s get one thing straight: it’s both unprofessional and unethical to criticize one’s colleagues in public and to claim to be more skilled than they are.

Even if this therapist does have more training or experience than other massage therapists, it would be unprofessional for him to compare himself to his colleagues. On the other hand, he could certainly advertise or speak of his own qualifications and assets. For instance, he could say to a prospective client, “I’ve been certified as a sports massage therapist and have practiced for five years,” but it would be inappropriate to give out the information that the massage therapist down the street has had no such training and is relatively green. However, in this case, the therapist doesn’t have extraordinary qualifications, so he has no call to boost himself above others doing similar work. If the rumors are true, what he’s doing is both unprofessional and unethical.*

This brings up a larger question about how we relate to our colleagues and what responsibilities we have toward each other.

We want to be as generous with our colleagues as we’d like them to be with us. While it’s natural, in some ways, to think of other massage therapists as competitors, in other ways we are joined together in our efforts to educate the public about the benefits of massage therapy and bodywork and to uplift the profession.

Whether you work in a spa, a doctor’s office or on your own, it doesn’t pay in the long run to be a cutthroat competitor with your fellow therapists; we need each other’s support. And sometimes competition doesn’t make sense. We’re not interchangeable machines. A client who would be drawn to one practitioner’s style and personality might not be drawn to another massage therapist’s qualities.

We need to take care with judgments about our colleagues and give them the benefit of the doubt, especially when we don’t have personal knowledge or reliable information about a situation. So in this instance, you’re in the ironic position of needing to treat your colleague better than he may be treating you. You don’t want to leap to judgment about another practitioner, particularly when the information is second hand. It could have been a misunderstood remark, one taken out of context, or a one-time bit of bragging at an insecure moment.

On the other hand, when a colleague is said to be doing something that makes the profession or other massage therapists look bad, we have a right and, if the offense is serious enough, even a responsibility to check into it. Whether we are officially tied to other massage therapists and to a common code of ethics, whether we belong to a professional association or live in a state where there is licensing, every one of us is an ambassador for the profession. There are no lone practitioners or maverick massage therapists. Therefore, when it comes to our professionalism, we can’t say to our colleagues, “That’s none of your business.” How we go about our work and the impression we make on the public affect the reputation of massage and bodywork in general. It also affects  other practitioners in particular and, indirectly, their livelihood. If we are harming the image of massage in the community, it literally is their business.


In deciding whether to confront him, you have to weigh whether getting to the truth about this story and dealing with the practitioner is worth your time and energy. Perhaps as many clients are turned off by his bragging as are impressed. You couldn’t be blamed  with this less harmful offense, if you let it go and concentrate on doing your own good work. However, if you decide not to check out the rumors, you’re obligated not to spread them either.

If you choose to deal with the alleged braggart about his comments, this brings up the question of how we go about giving or receiving feedback or questions about our professionalism. Such a confrontation can be uncomfortable for both parties, but if these rumors were going around about you, wouldn’t you rather someone deal with you openly about them rather than have others gossiping behind your back?

Sometimes we make mistakes from lack of education rather than from lack of caring. Perhaps we haven’t been trained in the finer points of being professional and may not be aware that we’ve crossed a line. Embarrassing as it might be, it’s better in the long run to hear about it and have the chance to correct it. If you are the questioning party, it’s usually better to deal with a colleague directly than assuming they are deliberately behaving without concern for the profession, clients, or colleagues and won’t be open to feedback. And if the practitioner is intentionally being unethical, then the confrontation could serve as a warning and might motivate him or her to change the behavior.

There are choices about how to approach the therapist in question. You might want to enlist a third party to talk with this person, such as a respected teacher, someone who could keep the situation confidential. You would want someone who could be counted on to be objective so that the massage therapist doesn’t feel ganged-up on. If you have fears of retaliation for whatever reason, using a third person would also give you the choice of remaining anonymous. Or you could enlist a trusted and objective third person as a witness in a meeting with the therapist in question, someone who could back you up if the conversation went bad or if the therapist became hostile later.

If that’s not possible or you want to deal with the therapist more indirectly, using e-mail is a possible option. It’s less official (and less intimidating) than a letter and unlike a phone call, gives you the opportunity to say exactly what you want and gives the practitioner the time to think about his responses. Of course, a letter or a phone call are options, too.

If you contact him yourself, whether by e-mail, letter, or phone, you could begin by admitting (assuming that it’s true), that you feel awkward about the situation. Let him know that you have heard some rumors about his professional behavior that concern you and that you know that if you were in his place, you’d rather hear the rumors and address them rather than having colleagues talk behind your back. (Perhaps you don’t need to say this right away, but you could raise the issue that it’s better than being presented with an ethics complaint out of the blue.)

If the rumors are true, you would hope his response (or any other therapist’s) would be to own up to inflating his qualifications, apologize, and promise not to do it again. If he is being falsely accused, the ideal would be for him to state that the rumors are untrue, but still thank you for having the courage to come to him directly. If the therapist refuses to respond or becomes angry about being challenged, then you have to let it go. You can’t file a complaint on second-hand information (and the chance that he has been wrongly accused).

Of course, you could set up a “sting” and, for instance, get a friend to call him, posing as a client, to see if he does make disparaging comments about other massage therapists. But then again, you have to determine if your time and energy could be best spent on improving your own practice—especially in a situation like this where little harm is being done to clients.

Foster Camaraderie

Our work can be isolating. Family, friends, and the culture at large don’t always see the value of what we do. We need each other’s support and good will in order to thrive.

It serves us well to foster an attitude of camaraderie toward other massage therapists, to want to help each other. Sometimes that help may be in the form of tough love, holding colleagues accountable and working to educate them.


*Author’s note: to clarify, unprofessional applies to behavior that isn’t strictly for the good of the client or your relationship with the client or that could cast a bad light on your own reputation or the profession’s. Some unprofessional acts are fairly common and relatively harmless, such as not being on time. You want to avoid being unprofessional, but generally no one will haul a practitioner into court or file a complaint for being late.

On the other hand, behavior that is unethical is harmful enough that the damage it does to the client or to the profession (or, as in this case, to other professionals) is in violation of civil laws or the ethics codes of professional associations or licensing boards. Most such codes, even if they don’t specify that you can’t malign another professional, have language general enough to cover this behavior—such as requiring that you do no harm to the profession or other colleagues.

 Nina McIntosh combines more than 20 years of experience as a bodyworker with her previous years as a psychiatric social worker. She is the author of The Educated Heart: Professional Boundaries for Massage Therapists, Bodyworkers, and Movement Teachers. To learn more about professional boundaries and ethics, visit

 To learn more about illustrator Mari Gayatri Stein, visit www.gypsydogpress.com.