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Ethics Codes & the Ethical Review Process

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Coaches know that without client trust the coaching relationship is hobbled if not ineffective.  Client trust comes as a result of not just one coach but also an industry of coaches that follow ethical principles in their business practices and in their client interactions.  We each believe we know what seems “right” in a coaching practice and relationship, but when every coach thoughtfully follows a set of broadly accepted ethical guidelines, it creates clarity for both individual and organizational clients about what to expect in the coaching relationship, thus ensuring an effective and healthy coaching marketplace.

With the emergence of coaching membership organizations in the 1990’s, the need for an ethics code became apparent.  Today, as a member of a coach membership organization like the International Coach Federation (ICF), you agree to serve under the ICF Ethics Code in order to maintain a credential.  ICF leadership and coach volunteers have spent uncounted hours developing the ICF Ethics Code and addressing breaches of the code through the code ICF Review Process. The ICF code and process review have set a standard for many other organizations that have followed, such as the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) and the Association for Coaching (AC).  Additionally, the ICF has actively engaged in defending the coaching profession from regulation when legislators have challenged its non-licensed status, threatening to create governmental licensing procedures.  ICF has defended the coaching industry over the years by presenting their ICF Ethics Code and the Review Process to preserve coaching as a self-policing industry worldwide.  To date, no state in the U.S. regulates the coaching industry, despite continual efforts to do so.

Over the years the ICF has continuously improved the ethics code and ICF Review Process in order to respond to changes in the understanding of ethics, increased global exposure of the coaching practice, and learning from experiences in applying the review process.

Understanding Ethics and the Ethics Code

An ethics code is defined by Michael Jensen, Emeritus Professor, Harvard Business School, as:

Agreed upon standards of what is desirable and undesirable; of right and wrong conduct; of what is considered by that group as good and bad behaviour of a person, group or entity that is a member of the group, and may include defined bases for discipline, including exclusion.(i)

While a list of acceptable behaviors to follow as coaches has been developed, the ICF and other organizations must also decide how they are deployed.  Most importantly, what is the purpose of these standards when we think about building an ethical community of coaches?  Do we use them as a measuring stick to assess how “good” a coach is and thereby punishing the “bad”?  Do we use them to create uniformity in perception of right and wrong?  For the ICF, it was decided that the ethics code and the review process should reflect understanding and education.   Most breaches of the ethics code are about a lack of understanding rather than an intention to harm.  So, importantly, education—not punishment—is the goal of the ethics ICF Review Process. The revocation of a credential as punishment is used as a last resort. However, there are instances when the revocation of the coach credential or the accreditation of a coach training institution is deemed appropriate.

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