Coaching has exploded across the internet with the rise of better video chat software and coaches are selling their expertise and support in dozens of areas. However, remote or virtual coaching in any subject matter puts you squarely in the frontier of unlicensed and unregulated personal services. Savvy coaches should protect their reputation, their business assets, and their professional relationships with solid contracts that clearly define what the expectations for the coaching services.

1. Limit liability with a robust contract. Your contract should clearly identify the parties (and ideally, you would be contracting as an LLC or other business entity with some risk management) and clearly set out the terms of the coaching or consultancy relationship. What is included? Probably more importantly, what is NOT included? When is payment due? When are services due? If there is an exchange of materials, who owns the copyright? Can sessions, phone calls or video calls be recorded? Are there any privacy concerns with providing this coaching that need to be addressed? If there is a affiliate or referral network, what are those terms? 

2. Use a clear disclaimer. Life coaches, wellness advocates, business coaches — there are a lot of different names for people offering these services and the range of credentials, training and expertise runs the spectrum of helpful to hokey. However, what should be clear is that when a coach is working in that capacity he or she is NOT a licensed doctor, nutritionist, personal trainer, therapist, counselor or other licensed professional bound by the professional regulations, training, ethics and code of conduct that go along with the various occupations. Talking to an attorney could be helpful, but if you want to arm yourself with some research first, look into what your state code to license certain professions and take a look at the language for “unprofessional conduct” or “scope of practice” or something similar. Disclaimer language should be in your contract and on your website and promotional materials (including videos), there are no magic works, but something like: “These services are for educational and general purposes and are NOT intended to diagnose or treat any physical or mental illness or to be construed as legal, financial or medical advice. Please consult a licensed service provider in the applicable industry if you have questions.”

3. Establish boundaries with client. Again, professional codes of conduct make it very clear that crossing boundaries with your client (e.g. having sex your client) — is a bad idea 100 % of the time and can put your license at risk. Coaching falls outside of these professional constraints, but taking a page of the book could be helpful to create proper boundaries with your client and the scope of your work together. Your contract should address the communication expectations between you and your client – including the frequency, length, and timing of emails, phone calls, video chats, texts, and social media use. Will you become “friends” on social media? What is your policy on addressing ‘adult’ topics? What about obscenity, abusive language, racial or ethnic slurs or other hate speech? **As an aside, if you collect ANY information from the public on your website, you should have a privacy policy posted. And, if you want to limit the spam you get in all of your inboxes (both virtual and not) consider using a WHOIS shield service, registered agent service, PO Box or all the above to set up a professional “storefront” for your online coaching business.

4. Determine privacy standards. Typically, clients enjoy broad privacy rights in the medical world when working with their care providers because of HIPPA (Health Information Portability and Accountability Act.  Since HIPAA typically does not apply to coaches, you will need to establish the expectation of privacy between you and your client. Will you disclose the client relationship? The nature or length of the coaching? What about inadvertent disclosures by interacting on social media? Make sure you and your client are on the same page. If you want to be able to quote your client feedback in a testimonial, make sure you have clear written permission to do so.

5. Have a backup plan. Licensed clinicians can face serious charges and/or liability if they “abandon” a patient in need, even if that patient has an outstanding debt. The clinician has a fiduciary responsibility, or contractual loyalty to that client to ensure that needs are met or that a referral be made to another provider or resources if necessary. Since such requirements don’t exist for coaches, you don’t have the same legal responsibility. However, ethically-speaking you should probably have a plan for contingencies. What happens if you need to terminate the client relationship? What is your plan for addressing any suicidal language or self-harm? Do you have any other professional resources to refer your clients to if necessary? Do you have proper boundaries setup for high-need clients? Bottom line: if you have serious concerns about your client, tell them to call 9-1-1. Act like a reasonable and responsible person and err on the safe side.

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