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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The code of ethics for a psychologist’s practice is very clear. The consequences of a breach can result in a loss of license.   Executive coaches have several optional codes of ethics available, (ICF and WABC) but these are not linked to the potential removal from practice.  Client companies have formal value statements or codes of conduct and mutual respect.  Coaching companies have informal sets of ethical principals regarding confidentiality.  Executive coaches need to be aware of what codes exist in the companies where they work.

As coaches, we are often privy to highly sensitive personal data and information about our clients’ lives and business.  As a result, it’s no surprise that issues of confidentiality are a recurring issue for those interviewed. There are various ways that coaches interviewed deal with the issue of confidentiality.  Psychologists view their professional code as the boundary they cannot violate.  Most often they deal with the issue of confidentiality explicitly in the contracting stage.  They view all dealings with the client as confidential with the exception of “abuse” (e.g., sexual abuse) or transgressions of a legal nature (e.g., fraud).  For executive coaches who were also licensed psychologists, the line was clear between what was confidential to the client and to what information the company had access.

From the eyes of an HR leader, the view looks slightly different, “While I absolutely support the confidentiality between a coach and client, anything that negatively impacts the organization’s goals, or someone in the company outside of that client, needs to be made available to the company”.  While this might be construed as jeopardizing the rapport and candor between the coach and the client, it has the client organization’s best interests at heart.

So, how can coaches deal effectively with confidentiality in coaching engagements?  There were several solutions offered by our research group. Several suggested engaging the client company’s HR representative as an ongoing partner in the coaching engagement, or including a sponsor such as the client’s supervisor or mentor.  Several coaches advised counseling clients about politically smart communication skills as part of their repertoire. Lastly, many interviewees had formal or informal groups of peers and professionals where they sought advice on the more difficult issues of confidentiality. Many found that case reviews and coaches working together on issues avoided isolation and broadened their approach to these and other dilemmas of coaching.


One of the richest and most fascinating themes in our research was the question of, “when do I refer a client to some other professional inside or outside their company?” There are times in coaching engagements when it becomes clear that the coach is beyond his or her capability or the defined boundary of the engagement.  At this point, the coach often refers the client to an internal HR representative, or on to psychotherapy or counseling.

Coaches must be aware of the distinctions between coaching and therapy. Over the last few decades, psychology has evolved from a highly analytical to a more behavioral/cognitive practice. For some, what many psychologists do inside the therapy hour might look very much like “coaching’ — assigning tasks, asking clients to experiment with an uncharacteristic behavior, giving homework, practicing communications — all very common techniques that coaches often use with business leaders.

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