Punishment Through Theft: What is and isn’t legal in the salon?

Salon owners often punish their employees through theft in the form of unlawfully docking commissions and punish renters for delinquent payments by “confiscating” their belongings. Are you being robbed by a bad salon owner? Read on to learn more about common ways salon owners steal from their team.

Pay Docking

Some states (like California) have very specific laws restricting the docking of wages. Very few states do not have any at all. In those states without laws, refer to applicable federal guidelines, which basically state that as long as you’re making the minimum wage (after the deduction), wage docking is perfectly legal.

In my opinion, this is bullshit.

Pay docking can take several different forms:

Failure to Compensate: The FLSA dictates that covered employers must track hours and employees must be paid the prevailing wage for each hour worked in that pay period. Whether or not the service provider was actually providing a service is irrelevant. They were “engaged to wait,” therefore, the employer is required to pay. Many salon owners operate on a questionably legal commission-only compensation system, failing to ensure their employees are paid the prevailing minimum wage, or any applicable overtime pay.

Deductions as Behavior Modification: This is an example based on an exact situation a user emailed me this week. A salon owner, let’s call her Ms. Bitchface, punishes her tardy employees by taking 15% of their commission from their first service of the day. In states which lack prohibitive legislation against wage deductions, so long as Ms. Bitchface ensures your check equals or exceeds the prevailing minimum wage, it’s legal.

Besides being an asshole move in general, this punishment strategy benefits the wrong person–the owner.

Let’s pretend one of Ms. Bitchface’s employees shows up fifteen minutes late, leaving her client (who had the courtesy to show up on time) waiting on her. Regardless of the reason for the tardiness, this looks unprofessional, sloppy, and could cost the salon that client’s business. The client has been inconvenienced and something needs to be done to rectify that situation to attempt to salvage the relationship. It makes more sense to give the client a 15% discount (taken from the service total) than for the owner to pocket the 15% herself. The client deserves that kickback; not the owner.

Deductions as Punishment for Poor Service Outcome: A client decides she wants a refund, and the salon owner tells you that the money is coming out of your paycheck. Guess what? The same rule applies. If the state or the terms of your employment contract don’t protect you, so long as you’re making at least the prevailing minimum wage for each hour worked in that pay period–it’s generally legal.

An Alternative to Wage Docking

When it comes down to it, docking an employee’s wages for perceived infractions isn’t effective management. It’s legally perilous and causes resentment. Instead, utilize a progressive discipline policy. An employee’s poor performance or bad behavior is your problem, and often (not always), it’s at least partially your fault. Either the employee didn’t understand your expectations, you gave them a task or position they weren’t suited for, or you made a poor hiring choice to begin with. Regardless, it’s your responsibility to correct.

You don’t deserve to pay yourself for your management failures.

Your job is to lead, and a big part of that job is communicating your expectations, correcting employees who make mistakes, and providing guidance. Wage docking is a lazy way out of doing your job; one that inappropriately rewards you for your own bad behaviors instead of incentivizing you to evaluate your level of responsibility and improve as a manager.

How to STOP Wage Deductions

This is where I have to stress the importance of contracts:

If you have an employment contract that specifies your compensation and prohibits wage docking, your employer cannot dock your wages for any reason, no matter what state you’re in.

A solid employment contract is your shield against exploitation. Without one, you’re nothing but a squishy mass of flesh. In addition to having a contract written, follow the tips in my article, Wage Theft: What it is and what you can do about it.

Confiscated Belongings

DISCLAIMER: Always check your own state’s laws or consult an attorney before doing or saying anything. Laws change frequently and each state has different protections available to commercial tenants. Key word there: commercial tenants. There are tons of federal and state protections for residential tenants, but commercial tenants tend to get the short end of the stick. To be fair, many states are correcting this.

Your best protection is a properly written lease or employment contract.

…so always read before you sign and negotiate what you do not agree with.

1.) Your landlord changes the lock on your treatment room and takes all of the contents, telling you that you’ll get it back when you pay the rent.
WRONG: The landlord has essentially stolen the tenant’s property. Depending on your state laws, the landlord may have committed theft by conversion, which will typically entitle the tenant to damages and even a civil penalty in court. Landlord’s liens may be legal in certain states (which often only allow it if the contract stipulates it), but I’ve found that this is pretty rare. If a renter is behind on rent, they should be evicted properly and pursued for the amount owed afterwards. Even legally committed lockouts are messy and can be insanely expensive to defend.

2.) You went on vacation without telling your landlord, knowing you were a week behind on rent but swearing to yourself you’d pay it after you hit the jackpot in Vegas. Eight days later, you return to work only to find that your items have all been sold and someone else is working in your place.
WRONG: In many states, if a tenant fails to give a landlord notice of an extended absence or is gone for seven or more days while behind in rent without telling the landlord, the landlord may consider the rental unit abandoned. In that situation, the landlord may enter the rental unit and put the tenant’s property in storage. The landlord should then notify the tenant that the property is being stored, either by mailing a notice to the tenant’s last known address, or the best address the landlord has from the tenant (for example, the tenant’s employer’s address or some other address provided to the landlord in case of emergencies). The notice should say that the landlord is storing the property and intends to dispose of it in thirty days unless the tenant claims it The landlord should make arrangements for the tenant to get the property within that time, but the tenant will be liable for storage costs.

Owners, DO NOT commit theft by conversion. Ever. Never take what isn’t yours. Refer to your state’s “abandoned property” statutes and consult with an attorney before doing anything.

Defending that action could cost far more than it’s worth.

3.) Your lease has ended and you found a cheaper place to rent. A few weeks after leaving, you realize you left some things behind at your old place! You call the landlord only to find that those items have been sold.

LIKELY LEGAL: Check your state’s abandoned property statutes. When a tenant has moved out, typically the landlord must hold all property left behind for at least fourteen days (depending on the state) and give the tenant the chance to claim it. In this situation, the landlord is generally not required to give any notice, so the tenant should check with the landlord no later than ten days after moving out to see that there is no property being stored. If there is, the tenant should claim the property, but the tenant will have to pay for any storage charges.

Owners, do your part before you sell their crap. Protect yourself.

4.) You were evicted by court action, but your stuff is still at your booth. The owner is planning on selling everything without your consent.

WRONG: Depending on state laws, once a tenant has been evicted by a court action, generally the landlord must only hold any property left behind for three days after the date the tenant is forced to move under the eviction order. During that time period (three days, ten days, 24 hours, depending on your state), the landlord must give the tenant reasonable opportunities to come to the property and move his/her belongings. If the tenant and the landlord can reach a private agreement on a longer period to hold the property, the longer period will apply. Any such agreement should be in writing and signed by the landlord. After the time period specified, the landlord does not have to store the property and can dispose of it or sell it at their discretion.

Owners, even if your state permits this, don’t do it without consulting an attorney. It’s bad news for you.

FEES, SALE PROCEEDS, ETC: Depending on the state, landlords may not charge the tenant for anything other than reasonable costs of moving and storing the property left behind unless specified in the lease agreement.

The landlord should not hold the property for security on a debt or judgment without getting a formal execution in court.

However, if the landlord has stored the property and given the tenant the opportunity to claim it, the landlord (in many states) is permitted to dispose of the property after the proper time has run. If the property is left after an eviction, the landlord can typically do anything with it he or she wants, so long as the tenant had the required amount of days after the eviction to claim the property. In all other cases, the landlord’s duties in disposing of the property tend to depend on the value it has, in some states. Check with yours to figure out if any of those limitations exist.

Why don’t you have an attorney on retainer?

Salon owners and salon landlords, please stop seeking legal help after you’ve done something that requires it. Instead, have an attorney guide you through the process of establishing your business. Have them write your contracts and leases (because frankly, you are not qualified to do it yourself). Call on them before you do anything that might be legally questionable and have them advise you so you can avoid costly legal situations. Should you require a reference to an attorney in your state, I’m happy to provide one.


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17 Responses

  1. I work in a comission based salon in Colorado. Recently, I had a clients service total deducted from my service totals for the pay period: 1: The client showed up on the day that I was out of town because the front desk had written down the wrong information on her appointment card. 2: The client rescheduled for the next Friday. I was very ill and called in sick that day. I ended up seeing her the next Friday and she explained to me that the first time she showed up to an appointment because the front desk wrote down the wrong day. Then she told me that she showed up for the second appointment because although management called her to let her know I wasn’t going to be there that day due to being ill, they never left a message and she showed up anyways. When I finally did see her on the third Friday she told me that management told her the salon was going to comp her service for all of the confusion. While she was processing I found out that the salon was actually going to deduct the cost of her service out of my totals so in fact I would be the one eating it. The client asked me if I was going to get “docked” or in trouble in anyway for the messed up appointments and I told her yes they want me to cover it. My client was absolutely APPALLED. She explained to me that none of this was my fault and how it was complete wrong that they were going to do this to me. She said she wanted to talk to the manager, the manager was not there that day so she spoke with the assisstant manager. Later in the next week I found out that my client INSISTED that I should not be financially punished for this to the assisstant manager and when the manager found out she, the manager, was “upset”. What are your thoughts? What should I do? It seems they are always trying to pull this shady crap on us. Whether it’s that situation or “re-dos” after weeks of the original service or clients simply changing their mind about what they want after the service is complete even though a thorough consultation was performed. Thank you for any feedback.

    1. If ANYONE were going to take that loss, it should have been the manager herself. She’s the one who dropped the ball and caused the “confusion” to begin with. In any case, “redo” deductions are generally considered wage theft. There’s a post on that here and here. When it comes to payroll deductions for losses or theft, most states don’t allow it, or at least require the salon owner to prove the loss. (Otherwise, employers would be making shit up to steal wages.) Here are the Colorado wage theft laws. What they’re doing is not legal in your state.

  2. Are deductions from service totals, before a commission check considered wage theft? I’m confused.

  3. I live in Massachusetts and work on commission. I am basically trying to figure out if am an employee or independent contractor or what! I receive a 1099 for my taxes but she only allows us to use the salon products, she makes me work on a schedule. I stopped sitting around if I don’t have a client but if I have one and I’m trying to leave she will book me something and then tell me that the shop doesn’t close till whatever time. She throws a salon gathering (mind you we worked from 6am – 3:30) then were required to go and work the event from 5-11pm and that was without pay. I really need to know my rights, my label, my everything. I plan on taking days off and worry about giving written notice but do I really need to? Please give me answers on whatever you have. Thank you so much.

  4. As a salon employee, am I legally required to stay after my scheduled hours to wait for the last stylist to finish with her guest? Tonight I stayed 45 minutes past closing and past my schedule because my coworker (stylist) ran behind. The front desk associate left and said the new policy is to have the second to last stylist wait to leave with the last. I am an hourly employee, but make over minimum wage so I always make commission. Is this legal to make me wait when I am not servicing guests/ obviously not making income?

    1. If you’re being compensated in accordance with the FLSA (which means not only are you making the minimum wage, but you’re also having that overtime properly compensated), then yes, it’s legal to ask you to stay. Technically, you are making an income, since the owner is ensuring you’re making at least the prevailing wage for your time spent on the clock.

      However, I agree that it’s asinine to ask a stylist to say instead of the front desk associate. Not trying to discount the efforts of our receptionists, but the absolute last person I’d expect to pull extra hours would be a stylist who had been on her feet, working all day. Our jobs are intensely physical, and psychologically draining. That policy (to punish the second-hardest working person of the day by making them wait longer to go home), is a joke.

  5. I started working in franchise that rents suites to stylist. They charge a base fee and take commission. I was told they have to take commission and the base fee because booth rental is illegal in my state. I chose to work there because of the flexibility and amenities offered to stylist to build their business. Now after being there less than a year they have changed the hours of the front desk stating ” the front desk is operating on winter hours” , locking the front doors , and keeping the color locked and charging to use the color. The owner uses the state laws as a excuse stating they didn’t know that the franchise would hold them at a different accountability if they do thing for the stylist. They don’t allow meetings saying everyone works for themselves that’s why they charge room fees. How can I approach them about this ? I am tired of leaving salons but they are robbing us. I’ve made over $1000 and have been paid under $400 working 5 days per week with a large clientele.

    1. If rental is illegal in your state, there’s no way for them to justify it. Their loopholes they believe to be so clever will likely not convince any regulatory authority that they’re operating legally. Most state authorities are contemptuous of salon owners that try to pull slick shit like this, so they could do with a strong warning. They really do not know what they’re doing. This entire situation sounds like extremely incompetent management. If I were you, I’d be extremely blunt with them and make it clear that their arrangement, however they want to frame it, will be seen as illegal WHEN they are caught. (There’s no “if” here. It’s definitely a “when.”) This arrangement doesn’t benefit you whatsoever. I’m almost positive you’re classified as an independent contractor, and if that’s the case, you’re paying 15.3% of that $400 per week directly to the IRS, plus your state income taxes (which, if you’re in the state I think you’re in, are substantial). Get the hell out of there. This is one of those situations where leaving is entirely justified.

  6. Hi Tina,

    I’m not in the beauty business for humans but, rather dogs. I’ve been grooming for several years and never had an issue like the one I’m having in my current grooming salon. #1) The owner of the place hired me as a commissioned groomer employee (50/50). Never signed any type of paperwork or handed an employee handbook but my application and drug test. Never was told that… a) when the owner decided she wanted to give a free service i.e. teeth brushing or nail filing for a clients dog (we charge a high price for grooming and that should make up for the free service we are providing according to the owner), we the groomers do not get that service added to our commissions (paid for it) …b) was never told how much I was to get paid hourly in case I go home without making any or little commission for the day…c) we do not record anywhere what time we clock in or out. #2) owner enforced that all groomers be at salon by 8:45 am to “prepare” our station (more like clean salon) or we would collect points that would follow in termination if the required amount was reached. Also, even if we are done with our last groom dog by i.e. 3pm, we STILL have to stay until 5pm (closing time) in case a walk in for a groom or quick nail trim comes in (the last appointment for the day would be 3pm). We all have worked overtime MULTIPLE times! #3) the salon owner wants us to groom her personal dogs for not even half of what we would get in a 50/50 commission. She under pays to get her dogs serviced with us. She went as far as not paying one of the groomers that once groomed her dog! This as a result, interrupts whomever is grooming her 5 dogs (especially myself) to not make MORE money because she has basically taken the groomers entire day to groom her 5 dogs and sometimes after closing time. #3) a client complaint that I did not groom his dog good. Even after I explained to him that his dog drooled on his beard therefore, i could not do the best cut around his face (these things happen often in grooming). I did ask him to revise the cut before he left so I could fix any mistake right then and there (salon owner was present) and he said it looked fine. He calls the salon owner minutes later and sends her a picture saying he wanted a refund because his partner didn’t like the cut. The owner is obviously not a dog groomer and instead of asking him to bring his drooling dog the next day to revise the groom when I was present, she opts to tell him she’ll refund him and sends me an offensive text message basically questioning my grooming skills and then sends me a picture of what the haircut “should look”. Next day I go in, to sum this up, I asked her if I would get paid for that hard work I performed on that breed groom and her reply was no because…a) she has had too many expenses with mobil vans breaking down, and other salon expenses etc., etc…b) she hasn’t yet refunded him but “promised” him a refund but, waiting for his response I suppose…c) her business is not big like Petsmart or Petco where they don’t take that refund out of your pay because the salon isn’t all of their revenue….and d) she mentioned how she didn’t have some sort of insurance to cover that kind of incidents (not even when a dog is injured in her salon). #4) her mobil pet groomers are not paid for the time they spend washing towels for the van, cleaning the van, refueling the van, refiling clean water and empty dirty water, maintenance of the van, driving from one clients home to another, ALL THIS for just 25%!!!! The owners get 75% and they don’t do one fourth of the crap these poor mobil groomers do! #5) one mobil groomer knocked off a BMW’s side rearview mirror costing the repair $1,600 which is being deducted from the groomers paycheck!! Is this legal?? Groomer did not sign anything stating that accidents to or in the mobil van fell on the groomer and not the vans insurance. I’m in the state of Florida in Palm Beach County. Thanks for your time.

    1. Omg, get the HELL out of there. She doesn’t have insurance? That alone is reason enough to run. Damn near nothing about this situation is fair or appropriate. I’ll start at the top:

      1.) You should be getting paid at least minimum wage.
      2.) If your commission doesn’t meet or exceed the prevailing minimum wage, the owner should be making up the difference.
      3.) Employers are typically never permitted to dock wages below the minimum wage.
      4.) No employer is entitled to free labor from anyone (and neither are their dogs).
      5.) Recordkeeping (tracking hours) is a mandatory federal requirement.
      6.) Most employers are required to compensate you overtime pay equal to or exceeding one and a half times your hourly rate (at least the prevailing minimum wage).
      7.) Refunds are a cost of doing business expense the employer should bear–not the employees. The size of her business and her inability to manage her finances isn’t your fucking problem.
      8.) The mobile groomers need to be clocked in and compensated for every second they’re working, regardless of what they’re doing.
      9.) If the groomer didn’t sign anything regarding damages, she could likely take the owner to court for the wage deduction, and honestly, I would. This woman sounds like a complete shitshow.

  7. On a similar but sort of different note, my sister was often 10 minutes later for her job and then one day was 30 minutes late. They started deducting her pay for the time she was late. Is this legal?

    1. Likely not. She’ll have to speak with a labor authority for more information on her particular situation. I don’t know what state you’re in or what the terms of her employment arrangement are–even then, I’m not qualified to speak on her specific situation.

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