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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Those who are both coaches and psychotherapists must draw extra lines in the sand. Being skilled practitioners, they are easily privy to sensitive and often personal information that clients might not share normally within the confines of work. Their job is to distinguish what impacts the business and business goals and refrain from providing clinical treatment.  Those who are not therapists must have sufficient training to recognize when a referral to therapy is necessary and understand the limits of coaching as well as the limits of their capability to address certain issues. Client companies may assume that executive coaching is not therapy but seldom have mechanisms or explicit policies to manage the executive coaching engagement other than the reputations of those they hire.

In addition, it may become problematic for the executive coach to be a conduit for clients finding appropriate therapy. If a coach determines a client could benefit from therapy or counseling, a recommended approach is to encourage the client to use their company’s available resources such as the Employee Assistance Plans. If there is not a company program or a client needs additional help in finding resources, only then should a coach make a referral from his or her own network.  Coaches should consider referral when

• the client is clearly depressed or having significant marriage/family problems;
• the client has a problem with an addiction;
• the coach is beyond his or her own capability to address an issue;
• the issues clearly go beyond workplace concerns.

There were similarities in the responses about when to refer clients to Human Resources.  There was clear consensus that coaches must refer back or at least engage the involvement of the internal HR expertise when
• the coach suspects sexual harassment;
• the coach suspects other kinds of severe workplace/ management abuse;
• the coach becomes aware of illegal conduct involving the client;
• the coach sees incidents where behavior infringes on the company’s ethics policies.


We recommend a proactive approach, setting the stage in advance that ethical subjects will arise for discussion in the course of the coaching engagement. Do not wait, or expect a client or hiring party to initiate the conversation.  One theme that emerged in our interviews is that it is easy to ‘get sloppy’ and not address the arena of ethics in the coaching process.  It is critical to be clear before starting.  Is there an expectation of first responsibility to the health and well being of the company above that of the executive client?  Initiate an up-front discussion about the coach’s role as a non-judgmental sounding board, particularly for difficult decisions and dilemmas.  Discuss methodologies or approaches you will use when these difficult conversations arise (i.e., values-based, reflective approach) and make it clear to both the client and the company that if you sense that a client issue may have ethical implications, you will address it openly with the client.  In summary, many of the issues of ethics and confidentiality can be dealt with through a proactive conversation generated by the executive coach in the beginning of the engagement.

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