Why think about ethics in coaching?

If you were to describe coaching, what would you say? For me, at its most basic, coaching is a relationship – a relationship between coach and coachee. That relationship’s based on equality between the two parties, focusing attention on the coachee, and facilitating approaches to dealing with what the coachee presents. All this may sound quite straightforward. But it’s not.

Character with sign saying ethicsAny relationship needs to be managed, and coaching relationships are no exception. The responsibility for managing these particular relationships lies with the coach. This being so, coaches need to consider carefully and monitor the effects of a number of things, from values and perceived ‘power’ in the relationship to non-judgementalism and ethics. If this consideration and monitoring are neglected, problems can arise. It’s the duty of coaches to ensure their responsibilities are carried out.

This time I’ll take a look at why we need to think about ethics in coaching, touching on the kinds of ethical concerns that can arise, as well as potential ethical dilemmas to watch out for.

Why think about ethics in coaching?

Coaching is as yet an unregulated profession. Unlike counselling, anyone can set up as a coach without qualifications or experience. Whilst this doesn’t necessarily mean such an individual would inevitably be a ‘bad coach’, it has its drawbacks. Coaches need to have thought through in a structured manner the implications of what they propose to do, the efficacy of the services they may be offering, and whether as people they really are suitable coach material. That needs a level of self-insight and honesty, as well as a grasp of the ethics of what it means to be a coach.

There are so many questions that need to be asked and answered. Why be a coach in the first place? What is my rationale? Is being someone people like to confide in or ask for advice really enough to make me a suitable candidate? Are there differences between coaching, training and counselling? If there are, what are they, and do I understand their significance? What about duties relating to confidentiality of the coaching relationship, ensuring the psychological safety of both coach and coachee, and the precise nature of the coaching relationship itself? Have I thought all this through?

The list of coaches in the market is long. Consider how difficult it can be for potential coachees to navigate this list to find out exactly what is on offer and make a judgement about how suitable the coach might be.

Fortunately for coachees as well as coaches, organisations such as the International Coach Federation (ICF), Association for Coaching (AC) and European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC) have worked hard to agree and promote codes of ethics to which coaches can adhere and coachees can be referred. Take a look at the ICF Code of Ethics here, and the Global Code of Ethics mutually agreed by the AC, EMCC and several other international coaching associations here. They make for enlightening reading.

The value of coaches understanding and working to these codes is that they ensure a level of coaching standards, underpinning the reputation of the coach. They set the tone for the coaching relationship, and help the coachee assess whether the coaching suits her or his objectives. And significantly, the provisions can protect both parties.

Examples of ethical concerns

What kinds of ethical concerns need to be thought through? Here are 3 for starters:

  • Red silhouette head and thought bubbleClash of values or agenda     What if during the coaching it emerges that the coach disapproves of a coachee’s values or agenda? This poses a dilemma. Is it possible for the coach to remain impartial? What are the implications? Would it be best to end the coaching relationship? These questions need to be answered on a case by case basis, and each coach may come to different conclusions depending on precise circumstances.
  • Confidentiality     What if information emerges during the coaching that could be of use to the organisation the coachee works for? The coachee might divulge details of an illness, a vulnerability, or that she or he intends to leave. Should the coach pass on this information? It’s wise to make clear in contracting with the coachee that if evidence emerges of illegality, contravention of organisational rules, or danger to the coachee or anyone else, then the coach will be obliged to inform relevant third parties. However, other information that might be ‘useful’ to the organisation is another matter.
  • Identifying with the coachee’s situation     Coaches need to empathise with their coachees, but what if this empathy morphs into collusion? What if collusion ends up encouraging ‘reliance on coach’? Part of the role of the coach is to challenge coachees and to ask tricky questions. If empathy becomes collusion then coachee dependency, the ethical underpinnings of coaching are undermined.

Potential ethical dilemmas

It’s a coach’s duty to anticipate possible ethical dilemmas and have strategies to deal with them. Here are 4 scenarios to begin the process:

  • What if third parties (such as a manager, HR professional, or recruiter) ask for information and feedback about the coachee? What if requests come from powerful individuals? With bona fide stakeholders to the coaching, precise arrangements and conditions regarding feedback can be discussed and agreed before entering into the coaching relationship. But if individuals outside the circle of bona fide stakeholders request information, what is an ethical answer?
  • What if during the coaching the coachee wants to discuss an issue involving someone the coach knows well? How should the coach handle the potential internal conflict? Can the coach maintain the required neutrality?
  • What if within the coaching relationship the coachee tells the coach about inappropriate behaviour by someone else. Can the coach act on the information? What about confidentiality?
  • What if the coachee or a third party is found to be using the coaching to further his or her own agenda? The coach may be being used as a pawn. What should the coach do?

Clearly, we all need to think about ethics in coaching.  If coaches understand the range of ethical issues and adhere to an agreed Code of Ethics, the standard of coaching in the profession can be raised, the reputation of coaches can be assured, and most importantly, the interests of all parties to coaching relationships can be protected.

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1 thought on “Why think about ethics in coaching?

  1. Pingback: The importance of understanding the impact of values in coaching | Newbycoach thoughts

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