Tricks of the trade

Tricks of the Trade: What do you do if a client crosses professional boundaries (i.e., gets too close physically or talks about topics you are not comfortable with)?

The best way to prevent uncomfortable trainer-client situations from occurring is to conduct yourself professionally at all times—from the moment you first meet your client to the time you spend together during sessions. Present him or her with a folder containing your new-client paperwork (i.e., training philosophy, policies, medical questionnaire and consent form). Dress in appropriate attire (polo shirt and shorts or pants—nothing revealing); greet the client with a handshake, not a hug, high-five or fist bump; and maintain proper demeanor at all times (no profanity or racial or gender slurs). If you feel it’s necessary to touch your client to help explain an exercise technique, always ask permission first. Remember that you can have fun during sessions without compromising your professionalism. A client is more likely to retain your services if he or she enjoys spending time with you.

Even with these preventive measures, you may still find yourself in an awkward position from time to time. But it’s your job as the trainer to manage the session. If a client gets too close to you or touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, step away, pick up your clipboard and begin discussing something relative to the workout. If he or she brings up a subject you find inappropriate, redirect the conversation to the particular exercise being performed and its importance, or to another fitness topic. As an in-home trainer, I give clients a bit of latitude in this area, as I am a guest in their home.

When all else fails and a client repeatedly makes you uncomfortable, remember that the trainer-client relationship is a two-way street. If you’re a business owner or independent contractor, you can simply terminate the relationship. If you’re an employee at a facility, ask the fitness director to reassign the client.

Heidi Pool
Certified Personal Trainer
Pukalani, Hawaii

We find that you can mostly avoid these types of difficult situations if you have set up effective systems. When clients first start training with us, we give them a code of behavior that they are expected to follow and also a copy of the code of ethics that their personal trainer will be working under. Both of these documents clearly outline that no inappropriate language should be used at any time during a training session, and they explain the personal boundaries that should be in place.

We have a stringent policy that all incidences that might be deemed inappropriate should be reported. This covers the trainers and gives them the support they need to deal with a potential situation.

After an incident is reported, I will decide what to do. I may call the client to discuss the issue, talk to the trainer about how to best reinforce the guidelines, switch the client’s trainer or, in very rare cases, terminate the client’s training agreement.

Many trainers underestimate the importance of written policies and recordkeeping that give a course of action for situations like this. The policies are vital if you wish to appear professional. You need documentation to back up your actions and the decisions you make to protect yourself legally, especially if you are getting to the stage where you need to terminate a training agreement.

In the long run, someone who is well trained will know how to maintain a professional working atmosphere and will behave in a wholeheartedly professional manner. I think problems most often occur when a trainer tries to be a client’s friend and/or blurs the boundaries between a professional and a social relationship.

Tom Godwin
Owner, Foresight Personal Training
Manchester, England

A genuine client with specific health and fitness goals comes to see you for the specialty services that you provide. That person’s main objective is to achieve those goals, not to create a personal relationship with you. However, if a client does cross personal boundaries and either gets too close physically or discusses personal information that you are not comfortable with, you should always take control of the situation and bring it back to a professional footing. If you do not keep the client-trainer relationship purely professional, then you run the risk of sabotaging the success of your client’s program.

For example, imagine that you have a client who is attracted to you and wants to make the relationship more personal. If you encourage the flirtation, you run the risk of changing the relationship to one where the client treats you more as a friend or companion than as a professional. If this happens, a whole host of problems can arise if you continue working together. If that client cancels at the last minute, for instance, can you still charge the usual fee, or will he or she now be offended? Similarly, what if you go out on a date together and you order a type of food that you have recommended the client avoid? Will this affect adherence to the program?

There are many issues that can arise if you turn the professional trainer relationship into a personal one. Therefore, cut any personal advances off at the pass (no pun intended) to ensure that you are able to provide a quality and professional service for all clients that remains focused on their health and fitness goals. This will ensure that your clients are successful and that you develop a reputation as a quality trainer who can facilitate outstanding results rather than a reputation of a different sort.

Justin Price, MA
Creator, The BioMechanics Method
San Diego, California

I truly believe that a significant part of attaining and retaining clients is to have a connection between trainer and client. I’ve had clients tell me that part of the reason they signed up was because I’m “nice to look at” or “easy on the eyes.” This reason was not the deciding factor, as price and quality of the first session were foremost, but having a good-looking trainer seemed to attract some clients. I work hard physically, and I’ve learned to be disciplined with my eating, so I don’t mind compliments, but do some clients go too far?

When I first started training, which was at a gym, I heard stories about trainers flirting and even being intimate with their clients. I can remember management warning us and discouraging us from going beyond a professional level with our clients because it creates awkwardness and division and can result in clients canceling or not renewing. I understood this was bad for business, but I personally had never experienced it.

It wasn’t until I started my own company, On-Fire Fitness, and began doing in-home training that I truly experienced clients wanting to know me on a personal level. I feel that there are different levels of “personal.” Some long-term clients have invited me to their homes for Christmas Eve dinner, to church services and to family birthday parties, which is usually cool. I always decline when they invite me to a club or bar, as I don’t feel comfortable partying with clients.

With training clients, especially long-term clients I’ve had for a year or more, many topics get touched upon briefly, from politics to religion. As far as I can remember, I haven’t gotten offended by any topics or language and neither have my clients, because we never go too deeply into those areas. Regarding the extreme side of “personal,” I’ve had a few women approach me wanting to date. Even though I declined, they still respect me and send me referrals.

At On-Fire Fitness, we have a strict policy regarding unprofessional and unethical behavior between trainers and clients. My employees have each signed documents addressing this at their time of hire. Unfortunately, in this business we have those who will use their title, “personal trainer,” to entice others. I remember that expanding my company took some time, especially the hiring process. When I sensed a cocky or possibly flirtatious vibe from trainers I interviewed, I did not contact them for a second interview.

John Goldsmith
CEO/President, On-Fire Fitness
Miramar, Florida

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September 2010

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