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Massage Today
April, 2007, Vol. 07, Issue 04

Are You Under Contract?

By Jenn Sommermann, LCMT

Unfortunately, it's still not the norm for massage business owners to have employment contracts with their massage therapists. Although things are changing and employers are more informed than ever, the average business owner still does not protect themselves or their staff with a written contract.

We previously have been a more lax profession and our personalities, by nature, are trusting and friendly. However, as our industry has become more professional and our business training savvier, we are starting to understand how important a working contract is. A handshake won't do the trick anymore. Every massage therapist should have a contract, either as an independent contractor or employee.

I wish I could tell you this is preventive in nature, and for the most part it is. But, as a business teacher and coach, I hear too many stories that prove how important this concept is. I was inspired to write this article because a former student called with his "nightmare story." It seems an entire staff of massage therapists was fired because they wrote a letter of complaint about a recent promotional venue at the spa at which they were employed. The spa offered a 50 percent discount during a two-week period, and the cut came strictly from the therapists' pay. When the therapists wrote a letter and complained, a meeting was called. That same day, the therapists (I think there were 10) were questioned, fired and told to vacate the premises immediately. My former student called me to discuss if this was legal. I asked, of course, if there was a contract.

The good news is that he said there was a contract, sort of. It came in the form of a 38-page handbook for employees. However, nothing was negotiated and there was no room for discussion. It was a "take it or leave it" handbook and had to be signed by the employee. There also was a clause in it stating the employer had the right to change things as they saw fit. The bad news is it wasn't really a contract and did not have the "right" information in it to support both the employer and the therapist. A truly fair contract will support and protect both parties.

I can't stress how important a contract is, as a starting place for negotiation and as a concrete design of what the working relationship and model will be for the duration of employment.

Here is where it went wrong. First, there was, in fact, information about promotions. However, it only stated that the establishment had the right to run them. There was no description about how they would impact the therapist or their pay. Often, promotions are run and the house takes the hit, or a combination of the house and therapist will be affected. If the massage therapist were to assume the entire financial burden, wouldn't you want to know that going into the job? That is not to say you wouldn't work for someplace that assigned the financial burden to you. Rather, the information would be helpful so you could budget and/or plan your finances. Perhaps you rely on other sources of income and two weeks of a pay cut are fine, if it brings in more volume and is good for business. The converse side is, if you rely completely on this one paycheck for your personal finances, this could be a problem. Maybe you could not afford such a change in salary. Either way, knowledge is power and it would be helpful to know for future financial planning.

Second, there should have been a paragraph detailing termination agreements. If the business owner wants to fire you and end your job immediately, that is their right, but it should be in writing. Similarly, what if you are not happy? Are you allowed to walk, or are you obligated to give some notice? I am not an advocate for walking off the job. I always think the right thing to do is give at least two weeks notice. Whatever you and your employer decide, it should be detailed in the contract. Wouldn't it be helpful to know these things before you start working someplace?

Lastly, how are disputes handled at places of employment? A good contract will detail this in the unfortunate event that it happens. How stressful is it to think you cannot have a voice at your place of employment for fear of losing your job? If something like this were made clear in the contract/handbook, perhaps there would have been a forum to vent their grievances instead of everyone being fired.

There are many other topics I would suggest for an employment contract. And when it comes to contracts, the more information there is the better. Take any uncertainty out of the employment situation and detail the working relationship and model as much as possible. I have detailed three topics for you, given the unfortunate example from my student. In addition, I have named the other two on my Top 5 and provided this list for your reference.

Top 5

Topics for written working contracts:

  1. Terms and Termination (including disputes);
  2. Fees and Terms of Payment (including promotions);
  3. Services to be Provided (including non-massage-related activities);
  4. Expense Reimbursement/Benefits; and
  5. Obligations of Both Parties/Supplies.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a start. I strongly suggest you get your hands on The Business of Massage by the American Massage Therapy Association and use it as a resource. It's an excellent book you will use for years to come. As ambassadors for the field, we must encourage employers to have working contracts. If they don't, suggest it. Be proactive. Draw one up yourself. If they don't like it or won't sign it, ask yourself, "Do I really want to work here?"

Above all, protect yourself and stay focused.

Click here for previous articles by Jenn Sommermann, LCMT.


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