Driving Growth with Ethics

To run a sustainable business, being ethical is becoming more important than ever.

By Dawn Reiss, February 13, 2018

laptop with the word "ethics" on the screen

To run a sustainable business, being ethical is becoming more important than ever. Just look at the rise of corporate social responsibility and companies touting fair-trade and ethical practices, including good working conditions.1–5

Highlighting the trend of paying more attention to ethics, between 2014 and 2016, sustainable, responsible and impact investing grew by 33 percent, increasing from $6.57 trillion in 2014 to $8.72 trillion in 2016, according to the U.S. SIF Foundation.6 The foundation report says more than $1 out of every $5 under professional management in the United States today—22 percent of the $40.3 trillion in total assets under management tracked by Cerulli Associates—is involved in socially responsible investing. “It’s important to be ethical and studies have proven you do better financially,” says Cherie Sohnen-Moe, author, business coach, international workshop leader and president of Sohnen-Moe Associates in Tucson, Arizona. “We aren’t in a grocery store ringing up groceries for someone. Massage therapy is very intimate, close work that requires a high level of ethics and clearly defined boundaries.”

According to research conducted by Neil Garrett, Stephanie Lazzaro, Dan Ariely and Tali Sharot, once a person starts lying or using unethical practices, it can be slippery slope. The researchers found that telling small lies can desensitize our brains to negative emotions associated with it and lead to bigger ones in the future.7

Being Ethical Can Result in Better Profits

Especially for entrepreneurs who are running their own business, building a personal brand and good reputation are everything. Here’s why having solid ethics is not only necessary, but may also lead to better profits.

“Earning money always returns back to ethics, who you are and how you build a loyal clientele,” says Kathy Ginn, a massage therapist who studied ethics under Cedar Barstow at the Right Use of Power Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Ethisphere, an independent center of research promoting best practices in corporate ethics and compliance, annually lists the world’s most ethical companies—a 2017 list of 124 companies located in 19 countries and 52 industry sectors that are also very profitable.8 According to the Great Place to Work Institute report in 2012, the stock price growth of the 100 firms with the most ethical cultures outperformed stock market and peer measures by almost 300 percent, and that also translated into a better work culture, according to its 2017 report.9

Additionally, according to a 2017 study by Morgan Stanley, 75 percent of individual investors describe themselves as interested in sustainable investing, and investor attention to sustainability factors is now growing faster than that of consumers as a whole.10

Z. John Zhang11, 12 and Jagmohan Raju,13 both Wharton marketing professors, and Tony Haitao
Cui,14 a University of Minnesota marketing professor who is the deputy associate dean for the global Doctor of Business Administration program, say many people not only care about their business operations, but also the fairness of the transaction and interaction because doing so can maximize their profits.15

“Many consumers do care about fairness and doing good for other people,” Cui says. “They may not be super rich, but they do care about helping other people. Being fair is embedded in the human gene. There is a need for people to see this happen, not only in themselves, but in society. Long-term, that can translate into lasting benefits.”

Ethics and Massage Therapy

The relationship between ethical practices and business success is highly applicable to the massage therapy profession, where ethics are especially critical due to the nature of the interaction between a massage therapist and their client. Establishing boundaries, being aware of the lopsided balance of power between therapist and client, and maintaining a professional demeanor at all times when interacting with clients are components of ethical practices that can elevate the success of a massage therapy professional. Here are some tips on how to maintain high ethical standards and what to avoid.

Business stability comes from building a loyal client base. That starts with great customer service, a firm handshake, leading the client into a better space and showing up in an empowered way, Ginn says.

Misuse of power issues can be overt or subtle, from not giving clients informed consent to not draping properly. “The subtle ones can often be more dangerous,” she says. “Practitioners can also misuse power by losing it or overusing it. We are responsible to show up with professional power and use it wisely.”

Your clients need to be in control of the massage session, from deciding if they’d like to begin the session face up or face down to the depth of massage they want. Massage therapists who don’t actively listen to their clients before and during a massage session are overusing their power, Ginn says. It’s also important for the therapist to be relatable but not take over the conversation and overshare their personal information.

For example, if a client says their father recently died, it’s okay to say how you recently had a father who also died and you’re sorry, says Ginn. But massage therapists should not launch into a 15-minute conversation about their own experience that monopolizes the client’s time.

Conversely, a therapist underuses their power by not setting important boundaries, especially with clients who don’t show up or pay on time. “You have to reinforce boundaries because that’s going to impact you,” says Debra Koerner, co-founder, imassage, Inc. in Delray Beach, Florida. “You have to be confident and professional, and have those difficult conversations. That can be particularly hard for people in the healing and caring field.”

This can also happen in other important situations, such as when a female therapist has a male client who continually flirts and we don’t address it, Ginn says. “If we laugh it off, don’t establish boundaries and we let the client run the show, that’s an abuse of power, too,” she says.

Establishing professional boundaries by creating structure and order in your practice is even more important in the massage therapy profession because practitioners are touching a body in such an intimate and physical way.

“There’s so much damage that can be done between client and a therapist without proper ethics,” says Ginn, who has investigated a wide variety of ethics concerns. “People need to trust us and feel safe in our presence. We can have a wonderful office and effective techniques, but if our clients don’t trust us or feel safe in our presence, they may not come back. What brings business back is good customer service. Good ethics and customer service go hand in hand.”

Create Customer Loyalty

Here’s how to create strong customer loyalty by using ethical business practices.

Keep it professional. Therapists need to be cautious about their image. Set the right tone, structure and order across every aspect of your massage practice. Have a strong website, polished business cards and a greeting on the phone that conveys a message of professionalism. “Don’t say, ‘Hey it’s Sally, leave a message,’” Ginn says. “Clients will judge us in the first six seconds.”

Showcase a clean, safe space, including the waiting area and bathroom. Use professional signage instead of Post-it notes. Make sure your appearance is polished. Your shoulders shouldn’t be slumped, and clients should not be looking down during a massage to see flip-flops on your feet, Koerner says. “Think through every moment of interaction with the client,” Koerner says. “What are my actions communicating that I might not be verbally saying?”

Make confirmation calls and follow-up calls, suggests Ginn. “Let them know who you are and the type of professional you are, and why you do what you do,” she says. “If you tell a client you are going to follow-up within 48 hours, make sure you do that and keep your word.” That also means being on time for your appointments, and if a client has scheduled a one-hour appointment, don’t give them three hours, Ginn says.

Don’t use email addresses that can be misconstrued with phrases like “happyhands,” Sohnen-Moe says. Don’t over talk and discuss your personal life with a client when they are being massaged, says Koerner.

Although there’s nothing wrong with taking cash, consider using a Square credit card processing machine to appear more professional, Sohnen-Moe says. “Be mindful when you raise your fees,” Ginn says. “Give clients at least two months advance notice in person or in writing so it’s a formal discussion or a letter, and not an ‘Oh, by the way’ afterthought.”

Stop a bad situation before it starts. There are some ethical situations that are absolutely non-negotiable. “In those situations, if a therapist doesn’t feel safe and feels like their client is acting in a predatory manner, end the session immediately, and say, ‘I’ll no longer work with you,’” Koerner says.

For Ginn, this meant immediately ending a massage session when a client tried to kiss her. Even though the male client, who was going through a divorce, tried to apologize, Ginn says she knew he was in too vulnerable of a place to try and continue a professional relationship going forward.

Have clear communication. Clear communication is imperative to building your reputation and public image. Managing expectations and reinforcing boundaries are important for any business, but especially when you’re in something as intimate and personal as massage therapy.

When talking with clients, make your comments appropriate and specific to the context of the massage session. You might say something like, “The last time I saw you, your range of motion was 30 percent and now it’s 40 percent,” Sohnen-Moe suggests. “Ethics goes beyond the obvious, treating clients with respect and not giving preferential treatment.”

During the intake process, mirror back information you just received from the client to make sure you clearly understood what was communicated, says Koerner. For example, if a client says, “I’m not sleeping well; I have back pain and pain in my left shoulder,” then say, “So you want a full body massage, and a little more time on your left shoulder and back.” And then ask, “How does that sound to you?” to reconfirm you heard correctly, she says. Even before asking a client to turn over on their back, ask, “Have I addressed everything on your back before you turn over?” Koerner adds.

“A lot of times it’s the simple stuff,” Koerner says. “Make sure you communicate the draping policies and what types of services are offered.”


1. https://assets.kpmg.com/content/dam/kpmg/be/pdf/2017/kpmg-survey-of-corporateresponsibilityreporting-2017.pdf

2. https://thebossmagazine.com/csr-profitability/
3. http://www.digitalistmag.com/improving-lives/2017/03/30/5-benefits-ofsocially-responsiblecompany-04991652
4. https://www.advisory.com/community-impact/resources/2016/corporate-socialresponsibility-report
5. http://wfto.com/fair-trade/10-principles-fair-trade
6. http://www.ussif.org/blog_home.asp?Display=75
7. http://www.npr.org/2017/03/28/521751296/the-truth-is-lying-might-not-be-so-bad
8. http://worldsmostethicalcompanies.ethisphere.com/honorees
9. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capitalbusiness/wp/2015/02/20/career-coach-the-value-ofkeeping-an-eye-on-ethics/?utm_term=.39344a95a4d3 and https://www.greatplacetowork.com
10. https://www.morganstanley.com/press-releases/morgan-stanley-survey-finds-interestinsustainable-investing-st
11. https://hbr.org/2015/01/ethical-consumerism-isnt-dead-it-just-needs-better-marketing
12. https://marketing.wharton.upenn.edu/profile/zjzhang
13. https://marketing.wharton.upenn.edu/profile/rajuj
14. https://carlsonschool.umn.edu/faculty/tony-haitao-cui
15. http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/in-the-game-of-business-playing-fair-canactuallylead-to-greater-profits
16. http://www.eiu.com/site_info.asp?info_name=corporate_citizenship&page=noads&rf=0