“Working” Owners: Are You the Boss or Are You an Employee? Make a Choice.

Are you a salon owner who works behind the chair more than two days a week? Unless you’re the owner of a booth rental establishment or paying someone else to manage your business, you should reconsider your priorities.

If you own a salon that employs professionals, you are either an owner or you are an employee. You cannot be both.

Many salon owners enter into ownership for the wrong reasons, but I’m going to specifically address professionals who venture into ownership in this post. Professionals often make the dangerous assumption that their love of the job itself will translate to managerial prowess, and that’s rarely ever the case. Nowhere is this more evident than in the educational backgrounds of licensed owners. While all attend beauty school, very few hold business management degrees. A good deal of them also make the foolish assumption that business management is easy, or that a salon doesn’t require management at all.

Any business predicated on those dangerous, foolish assumptions is one that is almost certain to fail. In the slow burn of failure, these “working” owners who abdicate their managerial responsibilities will also fail their employees in a variety of ways–non-compliance with employment laws, ignorance of effective management techniques, imposition of ridiculous restrictive covenants–to name a few.

So salon owners, we’re going to talk about why you do not belong behind a chair more than two days a week if you have employees to manage and a business to run. I understand that sometimes staff mutiny and you may have no choice but to pick up your shears to make ends meet. (That happens to every salon owner at some point in their career.) However, if you are fully-staffed, you should not be competing with your employees.

“How am I ‘competing’ with the staff?”

Your employees were hired to perform services on clients. If they’re on any kind of commission-influenced compensation system, their job is to meet and exceed sales objectives. They should be performing the services–not you.

If you have more clients than your staff can accommodate, do a happy jig and hire more professionals. Your presence on the floor as a service provider creates an atmosphere of unfair competition, one that is entirely inappropriate if your employees are not adequately booked. How can a stylist you employ attempt to compete with you–the person who has the advantage of having their name emblazoned on the door? Deserved or not, salon owners who still practice the craft tend to retain that advantage since many clients (for whatever reason) assume the owner of the business is somehow more talented than the staff they employ. (While this may be true in some cases, I think we can all agree it isn’t the case in all of them.)

You are the boss, so be the boss. If you don’t have a full-time manager doing your job for you, you don’t belong behind the chair on a full-time basis.

“What do you mean I ‘don’t belong’ there?”

As employers, it’s important for us to understand our roles in the salon.

You are not your employees’ coworker or their friend. Involving your staff in the decisionmaking process is important. Letting them know their voices are heard contributes to employee satisfaction and makes your job as an owner easier. However, you are the final authority. As an owner, you need to maintain professional distance in order to manage your crew effectively. Unless you’re strictly adhering to professional standards and leading by example in how you interact with your employees and your clients, working together on the floor often creates a familiarity that is inappropriate in an employer/employee relationship.

You are a business owner, a leader, and their employer. This doesn’t give you license to act as a tyrannical overlord, but there will be times when you will have to act as “The Boss.” It may feel good when your employees like you, but when you have to make an unpopular decision or discipline someone, that familiarity can quickly shift into resentment. When you move to act in your capacity as a business owner and not a “coworker,” your employees may see you as a betrayer.

Put simply: You will become the enemy as soon as you stop being the “cool boss,” and that fun, happy “family environment” you cultivated will sour as you realize that the familiarity you enjoyed so much has given your employees the impression that they can disrespect you and question your competence.

This is especially true if you’ve shared personal details with your employees.

As an employer, you have numerous responsibilities to handle. If you’re not doing your job as a manager, your employees will resent you. When you’re behind a chair instead of behind your desk, management tasks will slip through the cracks. No amount of “cool boss” behavior will excuse half-assed business management.

“What is my job as an owner?”

  • You ensure that the salon remains profitable by advertising, marketing, and networking.
  • You keep the peace.
  • You ensure that you have enough backbar and retail.
  • You research new products and services.
  • You handle disgruntled clients.
  • You arrange for continuing education.
  • You organize agendas for staff meetings.
  • You conduct routine technical evaluations to ensure the employees are consistently improving.
  • You make quality assurance calls to clients.
  • You manage your salon’s online presence. This involves participating in social media, monitoring your salon’s reputation on review sites, and keeping your salon’s website/blog up-to-date and functional.
  • You pay the bills.
  • You calculate payroll.
  • You organize promotional events.
  • You keep everything in proper working order.

Your job doesn’t end with this list. Not by a long shot.

Your primary responsibility is making sure your business is thriving, your employees are happy, and your clients are coming back. This means that you have to be constantly assessing staff performance, managing external marketing to capture new clients and internal marketing to retain existing ones, and making yourself available to meet with distributors and product reps.

You should be making it a point to meet privately with your staff members periodically to make sure that they’re happy with the way things are going. Get their feedback on what you could be doing differently to improve their work environment. Ask for their ideas. Take time to arrange a portfolio building day once a month. Keep your team excited and inspired.

You should also make an effort to work the front desk and greet clients a few hours out of every day. This also helps to keep your clients loyal to the salon and to monitor the quality of work that your professionals are sending out the door.

There is just too much to be done during the week for the salon to go without management. You are too important and your time is too limited to be operating as an employee of the business you are responsible for managing. If you are an owner and are finding yourself with down time, you are doing it wrong.

For more posts on salon ownership and management, click here.

[This post is an updated, revised re-posting of a previous version originally posted in 2012.]


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7 Responses

  1. Strongly disagree. I have way too much love for what I do to NOT work on clients. Many of these clients have been requesting me for over 12 yrs, and I have been a salon owner only 8 yrs. People request who they connect with, regardless of their status as owner/employee. I worked hard for my clientele, I expect employees to work hard to retain and attract theirs. It is only competition if you regard it that way, I believe in working as a team. Many clients are “shared”. I handle all aspects of management AND work behind the chair. I would not be able to pay my bills otherwise. I don’t know many successful salons that have absentee owners, or owners that only work behind the chair 2 days a week. Maybe their households have more than one income? Great for them, but I am on my own in life.

    1. Lol, the only successful salons with absentee owners are those that have hired management staff. Salons don’t run themselves.

      You’re sort of underscoring my point, which is that most owners open salons for the wrong reasons (however well-intended). You still passionately love working on your clients–so much so that you’re unwilling to act in any other capacity. You expect your staff to work hard to retain and attract their own clients, which is a job a managing owner should be handling. A lot of industry workers are accustomed to this practice, but a good deal of industry workers would see you as being no better than an absentee owner since you’re not taking on an owner’s responsibilities. (If I were to be expected to “market” myself and bring clients to someone else’s business, honestly, I’d rather rent–but that’s just me.)

      I don’t know your demographic or your market’s saturation level, but the fact that you’re not able to pay your bills without working behind a chair indicates to me that you’ve probably not been trained in business management or that you were trained to manage the antiquated, unsustainable way that our industry has favored over the last several decades. You shouldn’t assume that dedicated management isn’t possible simply because you haven’t been able to make it work for you yet–especially if your salon is operating on a traditional commission split compensation system. (You’re likely operating with seriously tight profit margins if that’s the case.)

      I’ve helped salon owners completely turn their struggling salons around and a lot of them had the same fears you have. “I won’t be able to pay my bills!” “All the other salon owners I know of still work behind a chair!” Trust me on this, when you’re ready to step away from the station, it is possible to operate as a managing owner and reap the benefits of that effort. (A lot of my consulting clients are retired stylists, living off their salon’s income.) Switching over will likely require restructuring your compensation system, adjusting service prices to sufficiently cover overhead, and altering service protocols to maximize efficiency, but it can be done and might be something you want to start considering for the future since you’re on your own. Savings are great, but earning a steady income from a business you’ve worked hard to build over the years is much better.

  2. OMG, what an eye opener!!!! I’ve been thinking along these lines lately but this just hit me over the head!!
    My problem is- I’ve been on my own for a long while (1 girl gig) and I have a really heard time now switching clients to my employee. Still too many people want me but slowly the “salon” is building a clientelle where people don’t care who they go because I’ve trained them personally. Its a painful process though…

    1. That’s totally fine and expected when you go from a solo operator to a business owner. The transition will happen, but you’re doing it right by transitioning gradually as the staff become more competent. I’d start the clients off easy–have them get small services with staff members or have your staff perform portions of the service (like shampooing or color application). I’d continue to supervise their work for a few months, if for no other reason than to make the clients feel comfortable. If they see you supervising, they’ll know that you genuinely care about the service they’re receiving. Eventually, you’ll be able to focus more on the business. By the time the transition is done, you’ll definitely need to because the business will likely require full-time manager attention.

  3. What if you are an owner who really just loves doing hair? Why cant we do both? Ive worked for many people who weren’t ever behind the chair and that is where i saw their flaws in ownership, they couldn’t relate to their employees. How do you juggle both?

    1. There are a few options: you can hire a manager, split management duties with another person, or stick with a small staff so that you have the ability to work half the time doing what you love (hair) and the other half doing stuff literally everyone hates to do (management), lol. Because of the disconnect between an employer and their employees, I don’t recommend anyone who hasn’t worked behind the chair ever attempt managing a salon until they’ve spent some time doing the job themselves, but there’s a point where the familiarity between an owner who also works as and employee and their professionals becomes inappropriate, so I don’t advise being on the floor unless you have a dedicated manager working that position.

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