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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Executives and their coaches need to agree on a reasonable definition of ethics before coaching begins. For example, one coach we interviewed begins all engagements with a thorough inquiry into her client’s core values and commitments to company, team and business. This strategy provides a broad grounding throughout the engagement, allowing her to pose questions addressing whether the client’s behaviors, actions, attitudes and choices are consistent with those values and commitments. From her perspective, everything she deals with fits in the domain of ethics. Through her ethics-focused client intake strategy, she sets the foundation for coaching conversations to delve into the subject of ethics as needed.


We all recognize the value in clarifying roles, agendas, expectations, and results at the onset of an engagement.  Increasingly, coaches must intentionally do so in the context of ethics.  Below we offer six ideas for the dialogue between the coach and the person hiring the coach that might take place during the contracting phase in order to raise client and organizational awareness about ethical coaching practices.

1. Often, the coach is not hired directly by the executive being coached. Identify an internal sponsor for the coaching engagement. An appropriate sponsor could be a boss, mentor, senior HR executive or other stakeholder for the performance of the client. Also find a day-to-day coach for your client from HR or elsewhere in the client company to support and complement the coaching you provide.  Work in partnership with HR. Encourage the client to share the progress of the coaching engagement with HR and other company leaders.
2. Recognize that the expectations of the person hiring you may differ from the client’s expectations…what does the client expect and what does the company expect?  Contract for what you can meet regarding those expectations, and communicate to all parties where the coaching relationship is not designed to meet those expectations.
3. Set clear boundaries:  define and set up a firewall regarding confidentiality and anonymity with the client, with the sponsor or HR representative, and with anyone else to whom you are accountable within the client company or organization.  Clarify the boundaries between what the company has a right or a business need to know and what is kept confidential.  This is best worked out before the fact and not when the issue arises during the engagement.  If the need arises to provide feedback to others in the same organization, share broad themes and patterns to protect confidentiality.
4. Explore how feedback about the coaching engagement will be requested and how it is expected to be delivered.
5. Craft a specific exit strategy so that when the coach leaves there is a clear internal support system for the client.  Determine how the coach will manage the transition.
6. Distinguish coaching from therapy.  Discuss when a referral to a psychologist would be necessary, when a referral to HR would be necessary and the process for both.  Distinguish with the company and the client what falls inside the coaching context and what would necessitate a referral to an outside resource.

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