Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world”. He may not have been talking directly about ethics within the coaching profession at the time, but he understood that at the very foundation of service to others are some very simple and all encompassing ideas such as this. Ethics is largely considered to be the philosophy of morals and addresses questions of what is good and bad, right and wrong.
Like all good practical philosophy, ethics in coaching is intimately linked with simple day-to-day activities. It is the active process of maintaining awareness, and taking actions for the combined good of yourself, your organisation, the coaching community and the world at large. Without Ethical behaviour at the core of everything we do, our practices, our organisations and our profession would at best stall and at worst collapse.
But conversely and of equal importance – we must realise that with a rock solid foundation of Ethical behaviour we become empowered to achieve our dreams, to take big risks and make bigger decisions. In doing so we not only help ourselves, we also provide a more enlightened space for our clients and we assist in the growth, the longevity and the sustainability of the profession as a whole. In essence we begin to “be the change”.
Now I know what some of you are thinking… that this is all well and good but how does this abstract ethical philosophy apply in the real world when working at the coalface. Surely, it is more important to concentrate on a marketing plan, administration duties and managing relationships with clients?
The ICF website includes the Code of Ethics under the ‘Ethics and regulation’ tab.” In my opinion it could also be listed in a ‘business development’ tab, such is the power of the 25 points as a basis for a successful business or leadership model. So lets take our coach position and consider the Code of Ethics and its application to some common ethical dilemmas we face in business.
Offering advice v coaching
Creating a non-judgemental, non-advisory partnership is the essence of coaching and is therefore also at the core of all ethics. So, what do you do when your client is stuck in a quandary that you know the answer to? On one hand you know that you could save your client time by giving them the answer, as well as having the added bonus of being perceived as an expert as well as a good coach.
Surely, this would be good for the client and your business? I do a lot of coaching around energy, stress and wellness and I come to this fork in the road time and time again. I admit that sometimes I get it right and sometimes I cannot help myself – and I am always improving.
The Code of Ethics says, in principle, to honour the coach position. In practice it’s the classic example of “give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime”. As coaches we are not part coach, part counsellor, part mentor and if we blur the lines for us, then they will also be blurred for our clients – either consciously or unconsciously. We might smile knowingly and quietly argue “it’s only this once” but we are forgetting that the biggest problems can also provide the most powerful opportunities for a break through for our client. And, if you do provide the answers for them, they will always be expecting you or someone else to solve their problems. Do you want responsibility for that? Or, do you want to be responsible for the amazing growth they can potentially achieve by learning to fully and completely trust in their own abilities and inner resources.
Only by first choosing to be ethical and trusting ourselves to honour the role of the coach completely, do we provide the space for the client to learn to trust themselves.
Conflicts of interest
Section 2 of the Code of Ethics deals with Conflicts of Interest, which can appear quite complicated when dealing with large organisations and different interest groups.
Consider the following example: you have been hired by an organisation to coach a team member who tells you in a coaching session that they are planning to leave the organisation and are biding their time for the best opportunity to leave. A number of questions arise, such as:
To whom does your loyalty lie?
Should you maintain confidentiality?
Is it possible that your actions could benefit both the organisation and the client?
In this case, you need to be aware of the needs of all stakeholders, including yourself. If your issues are personal in nature, in that you have a strong opinion on their behaviour, then you need to be frank and upfront about it.
Point 9 of the Code of Ethics talks about seeking to avoid conflicts of interest and openly disclosing such conflicts. Even if you think that your personal opinions are not relevant in the professional setting, as a great coach with a deep understanding of communication, you will be well aware that any strong opinion will ‘sneak out’ even if you are unconscious of how it is happening. If the discussion culminates in you being unable to continue the relationship it provides an opportunity to pass on business to a colleague further strengthening and expanding your business network.
Also there is every chance your client will respect you more for your honesty and possibly refer their colleagues and friends to you in the future. Remember “what goes around comes around’” so an open discussion would allow you to be more authentic which in turn allows you to be as effective as you can be. You may even inadvertently grow your business at the same time.
When we consider ideas of professional conduct there are a number of thorny issues that could arise. This is dealt with in section 3 of the Code of Ethics which talks about things like not making false claims or providing misleading information, honouring agreements and ensuring understanding of agreements, respecting clients rights and referring to other professionals when required.
My personal favourite is “not becoming sexually intimate with a client”. So, what do you do when you believe there might be some chemistry between yourself and your client? While it is true that in some cases an intimate relationship may not breach the nonjudgmental, non-advisory coaching partnership relationship but it does breach your duty of care to a client who has put their trust in you as a professional. If you think that a client is attracted to you, consider that it might actually be your own projection onto your client. Or, the client may have personal sexual issues that they have not been open with you about.
By acting on your emotional reactions whilst still engaged in a coaching relationship, not only are you going against the Code of Ethics, you are likely to damage your professional image. Moreover, you could also be opening yourself up to serious legal liability issues. If there is genuine chemistry, be upfront and honest with the person and pass them onto a coaching colleague who you know will provide them excellent service. Referring clients to a colleague will, sooner or later, be reciprocated leading to business growth to you. And, at the same time this will give you the freedom to pursue a relationship if the feelings are mutual.
Isn’t it interesting to discover (or reaffirm) that when ethics are applied to every day situations and considered in the context of how they can enhance our businesses, our relationships, and our ability to gain greater remuneration and to achieve our visions they become so much more than just a stimulating topic of enlightened philosophical conversation?