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 (www.knowres.co.za)
Ethics are most often recognized as the rules of conduct in respect of a particular group or culture, or the moral principles of an individual. Ethics is known as the branch of philosophy dealing with values which relate to human conduct (Webster’s, 1983).
Ethics is one of the more important domains of knowledge for the coaching/mentoring practitioner. A key future prerequisite will be that business coaches conform to organizational demands, aligning with the specific ethics, supervisory framework, standards and competences of those organizations. In South Africa we have already seen several examples of corporations who are beginning to define their own standards of assessment to regulate the employment of internal and external coaches.
Ethics is a neglected field
Yet, the one competence that is often neglected in the coaching and mentoring fields is ethics. One of the reasons that it is crucial for practitioners to belong to a professional body is that this commits them to the ethical code of that body. Psychologists and psychotherapists are bound to their professional ethical code, and can be disciplined or struck off their professional register if they violate the code in any way. Because coaching is not yet a profession, and therefore not yet regulated, it is still up to each individual coach/mentor practitioner to uphold their own individual, or their professional body’s ethical standards.
The importance of an ethical code is that it identifies the core values, standards and fundamental principles with which coach/mentor practitioners align themselves, and to which they agree to adhere. Also, an ethical code provides a benchmark against which individual practitioners agree to be assessed (Stout Rostron, 2009:62).
Professional ethical codes
However, human behaviour is always complex. A key difficulty with an emerging profession is that there are no precise guidelines for ethical behaviour – which is what the international coaching bodies are gradually trying to build into their ethical codes for members.
The European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) states in its Code of Ethics that “a coach/mentor must maintain a relationship with a suitably qualified supervisor, who will regularly assess their competence and support their development” (EMCC, 2008b). The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in the UK cites guidelines for buyers of coaching and recommends that practitioners articulate what formal supervision arrangements they currently have in place (Jarvis, 2004).
The purpose of COMENSA’s Code of Ethics (COMENSA, 2006c:1) and Revised Code of Ethics (COMENSA, 2007a:1) is to “set the ethical standards for South Africa in the fields of coaching and mentoring”. The COMENSA Revised Code of Ethics defines its “core values” as autonomy, beneficence, mon-maleficence and justice, and its “guiding principles” as inclusivity, dignity, competence, context, boundary management, integrity and professionalism (COMENSA, 2007a:2–5). (COMENSA’s Revised Code of Ethics is available at http://www.comensa.org.za.).
Navigating the labyrinth
Which ethical dilemmas have arisen for you in your practice? It is useful in your supervision sessions to discuss, on a regular basis, any ethical issues that arise. For example, it is recognized that there are circumstances where the coach may have two “clients”, the individual being coached and the organization who may have commissioned the coaching.
Coaches often forget to consider who the actual client is. Is it the organization that hires and pays the coach’s fees to help with a business need? Or, is it the individual who is seeking to grow, develop and move forward in their career? The question is essentially answered when the executive personally pays the coach’s fee. However, what happens when the company pays the bill? To whom does the coach owe loyalty? (Stout Rostron, 2009:229).
Another dilemma is in the difference between clinical and commercial practice. In clinical practice, clinicians look after their client’s interest. These interests are the hub of the contract, and the arrangement is a cooperative one. However, in business there is a proprietary culture based upon a competitive market philosophy. Both providers and buyers of coaching compete for the best deal they can get, and each party expects the other party to behave competitively. One party does not expect the other to look out for them or their interests.
Coaches and mentors need to navigate these two cultures. One is a business culture, where profit is the motive, and the other is the ethics of care for individual clients. A coach practitioner needs to understand the point of view of the organization and find a way to integrate the cooperative and the competitive points of view. This can often present a coach with dilemmas that challenge their ability to be loyal to both the organization and the individual client (Stout Rostron, 2009:228).
Complexity and self-awareness
It is critical that the coach develops self-awareness with the ability to self-regulate. Awareness of the ethical situations that arise is a first step; the second step is to manage them. Without self-awareness, integrity and the ability to manage complexity, ethical decisions may prove difficult or even remain in the unconscious.
Personal lives, careers and organizations are often at stake and there is a high moral responsibility in this interpersonal journey. Bonds of trust, openness, fragility and honesty are developed at high levels and these need to remain honoured and deeply respected. (Stout Rostron, 2009: 234). Therein lies the rub.
Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (COMENSA). (2007a). Revised Code of Ethics. Cape Town: COMENSA. Webpage: www.comensa.org.za/dotnetnuke/ProfessionalPractice/CodeofEthics/tabid/78/language/en-ZA/Default.aspx.
European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). (2008b). Code of Ethics. Webpage:
International Coach Federation (ICF). (2008b). ICF Code of Ethics. Lexington, KY: ICF. Webpage: www.coachfederation.org/about%2Dicf/ethics%2D%26%2Dregulation/ icf%2Dcode%2Dof%2Dethics/.
Jarvis, J. (2004). Coaching and Buying Coaching Services: A Guide. London: CIPD.
Stout Rostron, S. (2009:209-219). Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice, Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching. Johannesburg: Knowledge Resources.