Coaching Ethics – are you mentally prepared for the challenge?

von Bill Crombie

If you are an executive coach you will have been there – your coachee turns up for the meeting, tells you he or she has been made redundant and asks for your help to fight against this; the coachee’s boss tells you that the coachee will soon find him or herself under disciplinary action for underperformance – but hasn’t told the coachee this; the CEO presses you on detail / content about your sessions with one of their direct reports he or she is sponsoring; you suddenly notice that your coachee would like to have a relationship with you that is something other than professional (I understand that this is not uncommon, but it has never happened to me – should I be grateful or disappointed...?)

Experienced coaches usually (but not always - paradoxically, senior coaches can also get caught out because they are forging ahead in ‚can-do‘ mode when the ambush strikes) cope with these dilemmas with calm and aplomb – because they have been there before. Maybe they have not handled the issue with such calm and aplomb the first time round, but they learn from their experiences. However, I can still remember the panic that has gripped me on facing such unexpected ethical ambushes in my early years of coaching. Yes, the firm I worked in at that time stated in their literature that their coaches abided by the ICF code of ethics and, yes, I’d had a look at the ICF code of ethics. A very quick look. Once.

And I think this is normal human nature – much the same way we think (or rather don’t think) about personal illness or road traffic acidents. Ah, that happens to other people. It won’t happen to me.

Here’s another thing – maybe it’s just me becoming more attentive, but my sense is that ethical issues are coming up more often in coaching than they did, say, five years ago. Companies and company executives are under greater, more continuous pressure to deliver ever more challenging results – so should we be surprised? Probably not.

So what can we – people who run executive coaching firms and the broader coaching community – do to help coaches, and not only the coaches who are newer to the profession, cope better with the ethical conundrums that will inevitably pop up from time to time?

Well, first of all, maybe it is time to give the subject of Ethics a more prominent place in our approach to coaching training. If you look at the ICF and the EMCC codes of ethics you will see sensible, well thought through, comprehensive and broadly similar content covering all the topics you would expect – competence, context, boundaries, intergrity and professionalism. What you won’t find in there is much in the way of ‚how-to‘. It’s a bit like taking a penalty kick in a shoot out in a big competition – the players all know how to take a decent penalty, but how many times have you seen top players fluff their kicks when the pressure is on? And when these ethical issues pop up, the pressure is suddenly very much on.  

Like most things in life, a bit of practice enhances your chances of getting it right when it matters and there are two simple things you can do as a coach to experience something like the heat of an ethics dilemma, but in a safe environment – encourage your firm to run internal workshops on the subject and share experiences, or attend a workshop run by ICF or EMCC on the subject. I attended a EMCC one last year and found it a most valuable (and entertaining) experience.

Our profession and we as individual coaches would benefit from a greater focus on ethics – it is likely that ethical issues will come up more often in our work, so it is probably a good idea to prepare for this a bit more than we do right now. There’s lots of best-practice out there, but it is not necessarily widely shared – so here’s an opportunity, share it via a comment on this blog!

Bill Crombie is a qualified Master Business Coach and one of the Managing Partners of Leadership Choices, an international consultancy focusing on leadership development at Top Management level. He is also Managing Director of Leadership Choices UK. He is used to working in challenging multi-cultural environments and he has carried out assignments in most European countries, the USA, the Middle East and the Far East.