Defining ethical behavior for a skating professional is clear-cut in some instances and vague in others. Everyone knows that it is not ethical to steal another coach's students or to defame another coach. It is not ethical to approach parents and say that their coach is technically challenged or that you could do a better job with their son/daughter. It is not ethical to give free lessons to the student of another coach. These are obvious examples.
A less obvious situation demanding ethical conduct may come up when you are not prepared. For example: While leaving the rink in a hurry, Susie's mother approaches you and asks you for lessons. Well, you have the time; you need the money. Why not right now? No more thought, of course. No, wait! To be ethical, you must first find out if Susie is taking lessons from another coach. Oh, she is! Now, what do you do? The right thing is:
1. Ask the parents to notify the current coach of their decision to change to you.
2. Contact the other coach to make sure he/she knows about the change.
3. Once you have begun coaching Susie, try to avoid criticizing the methods taught by the previous coach. Be diplomatic in your approach, explaining that your methods are slightly different and you need changes in order to build in your direction.
A Balance Owed to the Former Coach
Another challenge to accepting a new student is the possibility they will have a balance due with the previous coach. It is important to establish if there is a balance prior to beginning lessons. In many instances, parents and coaches do not agree on a final payment. Teaching a new client before his or her final bill is paid is not necessarily a breach of the PSA’s code of ethics (Please note: this is a professional courtesy, not a legal position.). Regardless of the PSA’s interpretation, your peers alone could determine this to be an issue, which would not only create tension in the rink, but undermine your credibility as well. Your reputation will be tarnished and regaining the trust of the other coaches in the rink will be a time consuming act. The PSA believes the best way to handle this issue is to open a dialouge with the previous coach to work out a compromise. The controversial charges will be the question that needs to be answered. A coach who keeps immaculate records of lesson times, bills regularly, and doesn’t allow balances to get too high, will be in a much better position to collect his or her final payment. When a former coach hands an invoice to a parent for $1000, how many can pay that off in one chunk? For a coach who charges $60 an hour, $1000 represents 16 hours of lessons. Three lessons a week could mean that the coach hadn’t billed in 4 months. How accurate is that statement going to be? Did the skater show up for all the lessons? Did the coach show up for all the lessons? (Here’s a hint: Check with the rink and ask for copies of the attendance forms. Most rinks know who is on the ice.) Another issue is the coach who provides services such as editing music, etc., and doesn’t charge…until the skater leaves them. The PSA received one letter where coaches were teaching a skater for “free.” When the skater decided to move on, the family was given a bill for $6000! Motivational speaker Brian Dodge says, “People presume that because dishonesty often brings short-term advantages, it does not have long-term consequences; but time always tells the truth.”
As for the coach to whom the balance is owed, you do have options. Prior to collecting any moneys owed, it is a good idea to reference the Federal Trade Commission’s “Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.” Secondly, it is imperative that you have an accurate billing statement. Good accounting practices will help you in more than one way.
Here are several options:
Send a final statement by certified letter stating the amount, the dates, and arena for the lessons given. Advise them on the method of payment you desire, i.e. check or money order, and when you expect that to be paid. In reference to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and according to the website, Expert Law, “the first notice must also include a warning known as the ‘Mini-Miranda Warning’, which must state that the communication is from a debt collector and that any information obtained may be used to collect the debt. Except for pleadings associated with a legal action, all subsequent communication from the debt collector must also include this warning.” Remember, the letter should not be emotional, stick to the facts. Make it specific, brief and all business.
If the former client has not responded to the certified letter, contact a local lawyer and ask for a dictated letter on legal stationery. This letter should be mailed directly from the lawyer. Make one copy of this letter for your records and one to send again by certified mail if needed. The cost for a legal, composed letter might be $50 to $100 according to the fees of the attorney.
Another option is to go to small claims court. Small claims court offers common citizens the chance to resolve small disputes at a low cost and without a lot of complication. Lawyers are not required but each state does limit the amount that can be sued for.
And finally, there is mediation or arbitration which are costly, and the option of hiring a debt collection agency. Hiring a debt collection agency is not usually the best option as some agencies will charge you as much as 50% of the debt.
REMEMBER: As a coach, you are collecting a business debt. Be careful about revealing to any other parties that the person hasn't paid you as you could end up liable for libel or slander depending upon the circumstances. Make sure you review the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and any applicable state laws.
Being ethical is more than just a moral issue. No one wants to work in an environment where the air is constantly filled with tension. You are teaching a fun sport. You will certainly teach better in a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. This can only occur when the coaches are kind to each other and ethical in their behavior. There is nothing worse than having to be constantly on your guard for fear of someone stealing your students. Be friendly, cooperative, and ethical; cultivate your own students and your rewards will be far greater.