Home Tools Coaching Roles Ethics in Coaching, Contracting and Confidentiality: Drawing Lines in the Sand

Ethics in Coaching, Contracting and Confidentiality: Drawing Lines in the Sand

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Key Questions for Coaches

As executive coaches, we must grapple with many questions about ethics in relation to coaching, including
• How do we reveal issues that our clients may or may not be addressing that skirt the edges of ethics?
• When do we engage with our executive clients about ethical issues…once they’ve raised the subject?  When we know that they are aware of a dilemma but not addressing it?  When we see a quagmire about which the client may not yet be aware?
• How do we set clear and reliable ground rules for confidentiality that protect both the rapport between coaches and their clients, and also support the organization’s goals and needs?
• How do we determine when a client’s issues and/or state of mind necessitate referral beyond our counsel to their internal sponsor, to an HR professional or to therapy?
• Do we face ethical dilemmas ourselves as coaches by either addressing or not addressing an ethical issue we observe with our clients? What are the typical ethical issues that executive coaches have dealt with in the coaching engagement?
• How do we define ethics for coaching and what is the range of ethical issues our executive clients face?

Ethics in Coaching

There are both formal and informal codes of ethical standards.  Key findings in a 2003 national ethics study revealed that 88% of respondents from larger organizations said their organizations have written standards of ethical business conduct.  Furthermore, 83% of respondents were positive about the extent to which employees in their organizations follow these ethical standards.  They also indicated feeling pressure to compromise in meeting their organizations’ ethical standards. In 2003, 52% of respondents said they felt at least some pressure, compared to 47% in 1997.  On a more positive note, the misconduct that HR professionals say they observed in their organizations over the past year has declined from 53% in 1997 to 35% in 2003.”

So how are ethics relevant to coaching? Given the difficulty in defining ethics for coaches, we asked our interviewees about the range of dilemmas with ethical underpinnings their clients presented, as well as the ethical questions and issues they face as coaches.  One respondent declared, “What’s ‘ethics’? It’s all ethics!”  The majority of the respondents, however, did not share this sentiment.  Conversely, a more consistent theme was, “my clients just don’t have ethical issues.”  In place of naming issues as “ethical” per se, coaching clients raise questions about difficult situations, thorny issues, dilemmas, or things they are losing sleep over. Although these types of topics are prominent, they are not labeled, categorized, or defined as “ethical” issues when discussed with the coach.

Clearly, business executives continually face ethical decisions. In our research, when we pursued the question, most respondents widened their interpretation of “ethical issues”. They were able to generate numerous client examples of dilemmas or difficult situations with ethical relevance.  So why didn’t they call them ethical in the first place?  One reason is semantics – they lack a consistent working definition of what ethical means.  Many executives and coaches alike see ethics as compliance or risk management; a disconnect for those who view ethics as a behavioral intersection between integrity, honesty and accountability. Business ethics tend to be an objective set of guidelines based on laws, company policies, and accepted social mores versus personal ethics, considered more subjective and based on the executive’s (or coach’s) values, morals, and sense of integrity.  Given today’s headlines and the gross ethical breaches of executives at companies such as Enron, Adelphia, and WorldCom, executive coaches should consider both definitions within their domain of inquiry.

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