Coaching Ethics

Contracting the Relationship

This article is adapted from Sunny Stout Rostron’s new book, Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching (2009) which is available from Knowledge Resources (

Developing the habit of both formal and informal contracting is one of the first steps in beginning to understand the dynamics of formulating a coaching relationship. The coach and client agree to conditions of time, space, fees, confidentiality and goals. In contracting, the business, executive or life coach agree to a specific set of conditions.

Contracting the relationship

In coaching, success means contracting and goal setting. Outcomes and goals are typically discussed and reviewed at each subsequent session as agreed between coach and client. The contract needs to specify the parameters of the overall coaching period: for example, whether there will be the creation of a personal/professional development plan, and how outcomes will be measured from the beginning of the contract to the end. In terms of the coach’s intervention, the underlying goal in the contracting phase is the development of the relationship.

But coaching processes often fail due to poor or insufficient contracting (Nowack and Wimer, 1997). Contracting should include ethical issues such as the disclosure of personal and inappropriate information to a client’s superior (Williams, 1996), and aligning the contract to corporate objectives in order to be credible (Olesen, 1996). Conflict of interest between the goals and expectations of the individual being coached, and those of the company, as well as the issues of quality standards and confidentiality can impact on trust between the individual executive and the coach (Janse van Rensburg, 2001:24–25).

Contracting definitions

The contract between coach and client sets out which services have been agreed and delineates all fees as well as the outcomes and deliverables that can be expected. The contract sets out ground rules for the coaching relationship so that both parties are aware of their obligations. This helps prevent future misunderstandings and provides a firm basis to deal with disagreements. The contract describes the relationship between the coach and multiple parties, such as the individual client, the client organization, the HR unit, and line management. It is important for the contract to describe the difference between coaching and other helping disciplines such as therapy, counselling, mentoring and training. Objectives for the individual executive and for the organization need to be clarified, with boundaries made explicit in terms of confidentiality, fees, cancellation and termination of the contract.

Often in coaching, the contracting process is linked to the generation and fulfilment of outcomes. Contracting usually deals with the management of the process, roles played, evaluation of the process, learning and outcomes, and the exit clauses.

Also, the bigger picture needs to be part of the contracting process. It is important for the coach to recognize the larger systems at play and the “force field” that shapes and influences all the individuals working within the system. Therefore coaches need to hold a “bifocal” view, being able to see their client in the system, as well as seeing oneself in the system (O’Neill; 2000:xv). It is important to remember that contracting determines at which level the coach will work individually and systemically.

Marriage and divorce from the beginning

Another important aspect of contracting is the evaluation of the contract, including termination or renewal. In any business contracting process, it is important to draw up the “marriage” and the “divorce” papers at the beginning: a bit like a prenuptial contract. It is as important to specify the boundaries and parameters of the entire coaching intervention, i.e. how the process will proceed from beginning to end, and how to terminate the process, whether at the contracted termination point or sooner if required by either party.

As well as the overall contract, which defines the parameters of the coaching relationship, you may develop learning contracts with your clients. These are “works in progress” throughout the entire coaching intervention period. A learning contract, at the end of a coaching session, fully integrates the learning with goals set and commitment to action.


Janse van Rensburg, M. (2001). Executive Coaching: A Natural Extension of the Principles of Ubuntu and African Humanism.

Nowack, K. M., and Wimer,S. (1997). Coaching for human performance. Training and Development, 51(10)28–32.

Olesen, M. (1996). Coaching today’s executives. Training and Development, March, 50(3):22.

O’Neill, M. B. (2000). Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with Their Challenges. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

By Sunny Stout-Rostron Associates

Sunny coaches at senior executive and board level in corporate organizations and educational institutions. She has a wide range of experience in leadership and management development,  business strategy and executive coaching. With over 20 years’ international  experience as an executive coach, Sunny believes that there is a strong link between emotional intelligence and business results – she works with leaders and their  teams to help them achieve individual, team and organizational goals, gaining  wisdom and knowledge through their own experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.