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“Is it ethical for personal trainers to take clients with them when they leave an employer?”

As a manager and as an owner of a personal training studio for 20 years, I have had trainers leave and take clients three times. You can have trainers sign all the noncompete contracts you want, plus sign a contract that says they won’t steal clients. However, the loyalty that clients and trainers develop is a tough one to come between. Furthermore, you can sue a trainer for “stealing” a client, but after all is said and done, and time and energy lost, the client will still end up with the trainer, so choose your battles.

In our contract, if a trainer has trained a client for 18 months, and the client chooses to follow the trainer if he leaves, the trainer will pay us a stated fee. That way, the trainer and the owner have a clear understanding on how the transition can take place without either one feeling that a client is being “stolen.” Why did I create this policy? I believe that if a trainer has managed to keep a client for this time period, I’ve made my money back and the trainer has done a great job retaining the client.

What’s the best way to keep clients? I make sure the client works with more than one trainer, if possible. I also pay my trainers well enough and incentivize their job enough that they choose to stay with me. I give them enough autonomy that they feel they own their own business. Another suggestion: as a manager or owner, stay in touch with personal training clients, so they feel their sense of loyalty is not only to their trainer, but to you as well.

At the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do to prevent clients going with their trainers if the trainers leave. It’s simply one of the challenges of being in a service industry.

Nicki Anderson
President, Reality Fitness Inc.
Naperville, Illinois

Being “ethical” essentially comes down to being honest, avoiding conflicts of interest and treating others the way you want to be treated. Accordingly, the answer to this question lies in what was originally agreed upon between the two parties. If a trainer agrees not to take and work with the employer’s clients, then it is unethical for the trainer to do so under any circumstances.

Even without a written agreement, it is unethical for a trainer who is employed to behave in a way that could potentially damage the employer. That obviously includes any covert communication such as soliciting a client to leave.

You can use different strategies to try to stop unethical trainers from taking clients. The first line of defense is pretty obvious: clearly spell out the conditions of employment before hiring, and create an employment agreement that has a well-defined, reasonable noncompete clause. However, while this measure is a good start, it won’t stop an unethical employee from attempting to steal your clients.

At One on One, we focus on developing a “corporate” relationship with our clients, as well as creating an environment that both clients and trainers want to be a part of. Our business model minimizes the importance of any one individual and emphasizes a team approach. Here’s what we do:

  • We have all new clients meet with our most senior staff members for their initial consultation and first few training sessions. This strategy helps build a strong foundation between the client and One on One.
  • We use a partner-trainer system in which two trainers work with one client. The benefits are too numerous to mention here, but it clearly helps solidify the client’s relationship with One on One’s service and not the individual providing it. It also discourages a problem employee from developing a “secret” relationship with a client.
  • We make personal interaction with all clients by owners and senior staff a priority. By using advanced quality-control systems, we always know what is happening with each client. This regular interaction demonstrates that we care, and the corporate relationship becomes even stronger.

Finally, remember that “ethical” behavior is a two-way street. What kind of employer are you? Are you a good communicator? Do you pay well? Do you provide excellent benefits? Would you want your own son or daughter working under the same conditions?

Create a culture that is special and that your employees want to be a part of. In turn, this practice will create an environment that your clients won’t want to leave.

Bruce R. Burke
Founder, One on One
State College, Pennsylvania

It is unethical for a personal trainer who is a contracted employee and has signed a nonsolicitation agreement to try and take clients with him or her when the employer or the employee decides to part ways. There are several things you can do as an owner to make sure this doesn’t happen. First, don’t use independent contractors. You have no control over them and, if the division of taxation comes to double-check your employees’ status, you could be subject to back payroll taxes. Employees are the only way to go, and each one must sign an employment agreement consisting of a nonsolicitation agreement and a noncompete agreement. Noncompete agreements typically don’t hold up unless you stay within a 5-mile radius, but they do give you a bargaining chip if you need to negotiate an employee’s dismissal.

As an owner, I have had honest conversations with employees about transitioning with a few clients, and I have discovered dishonest practices related to this matter, as well. If an employee is honest and upfront about wanting to leave, I try to work through any issues together without legal involvement. If an employee is dishonest and unethical, then I immediately involve my lawyer and protect my assets. For most personal training businesses, clients are our most valuable asset, and these relationships must be protected.

You might consider using club-written programming for personal training, especially for semiprivate training. We write a program format for the month and give our trainers the freedom to adjust exercises for the individual client. For example, if the exercise is a rotation it could be done with several different variations and resistance levels for different clients. Club-written programming allows the client to believe in the “magic” of the club’s programming versus an individual trainer’s programming. We currently use this format only for small-group personal training.

Dale Huff, CSCS
Owner, NutriFormance–Fitness, Therapy and Performance
Owner, Athletic Republic–St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri

Great question! In our situation as facility owners, we do not feel it is ethical. We are a by-appointment-only studio; therefore, the only clients we get are from advertising (that we pay for), promotion (that we work for) or word-of mouth referrals. In addition, we create (pay for) the space for the trainer to meet the client and to showcase his or her skills. In our opinion, the trainer has not done any of the “business” work to have ethical grounds to retain clients. If a trainer does bring a new client to our facility, we pay the trainer a referral fee for doing so—thereby making the client “our” client.

We did have a trainer take her clients with her when she left. We had mentored this trainer (for group exercise, then personal training) and had provided the clients for her to work with. When she decided to leave because of commission-split issues, she also took the majority of her clients with her. She was opening her own facility behind our backs, and we were suddenly the “bad guys.”

Being big believers in making lemonade out of lemons, rather than wallowing in bitterness, we totally changed our business model to prevent a repeat performance. In turn, that change has become a real bonus to our current trainers and clients. We now assign two trainers to each client. When a trainer leaves us, the trainer-client bond is not as intimate, and we usually retain the clients after the trainer is gone.

In addition, we have a noncompete section in our contract stating that when a trainer leaves, he or she cannot work with any of our clients (past or present) for 1 year. While this can be hard to enforce, at least our position on the issue is on the table from the beginning.

Scott and Barbi Jackson
Owners, Scott Jackson’s Real Life Fitness
Nevada City, California

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