This article is adapted from Sunny Stout-Rostron’s best-selling 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).
Perhaps the key difficulty for any emerging profession is thrashing out an agreed set of ethical guidelines. It is a vital task but more complex than may at first appear. There will be differences of opinion as to what our guidelines should be. Nevertheless it is an urgent task, one without which the profession can neither prosper nor argue our claims to be taken increasingly seriously.
For now, the most important work business coaches can do on ethical issues is done before the issues arise. This is because coaches can work ethically only if they know in advance what the ethical code of their professional body prescribes, what ethical principles actually mean in practical terms, and how they would handle ethical issues that arise in their everyday work. And business coaches need to contract explicitly with their clients on the basis of this understanding.
Know your code of ethics
Ethics is often a neglected competence in coaching. Consequently, one of the reasons it is crucial to belong to a professional body is that this commits practitioners to the ethical code of that body. Because coaching is not yet regulated like a profession, or even rigorously self-regulated, it is still up to each individual business coach to uphold the ethical standards of their professional body, as well as their own individual standards. The importance of an ethical code is that it identifies the core values, standards and fundamental principles with which practitioners align themselves and their work. Also, it provides a benchmark against which individual practitioners agree to be assessed.
COMENSA’s Revised Code of Ethics (COMENSA, 2009) defines four core values: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. And it defines six guiding principles: inclusivity, dignity, competence, context, boundary management, integrity, and professionalism. But how should a business coach actually apply these core values and principles in specific practical situations within their day-to-day work?
Understand what ethics mean in practice
As we have suggested in a previous column, for a business coach to be prepared to deal ethically with potential situations in coaching practice, they need to think through their optimum responses to contingencies which might arise. They need to consider what their policies should be on specific issues and ethical concerns, such as (Stout Rostron, 2009:292–295):
- How do you handle the need to report back to the senior manager and the organisation, while maintaining the confidentiality of the coaching conversations?
- What do you do if the coaching conversation leads an individual to decide they want to leave the organisation which contracted you?
- Is it ethically acceptable to coach all the members of one team, including the team leader?
- How do you honour confidentiality when coaching a senior manager as well as their boss?
- What should your policy be about meeting with the individual executive and line manager together? How do you manage the issue of confidentiality if you meet the line manager (a) with, and (b) without the individual client?
- How should you address interference in the coaching intervention from a leading executive?
- Should you disclose knowledge of illegal activity by an individual coaching participant to (a) the management of the client firm, and/or (b) the relevant authorities?
Let’s take the first of the above questions as an example. How do you handle the giving of information to the senior manager and the organisation? The business coach should ensure that the written contract specifies the bounds of confidentiality between all parties, with agreed terms for reporting back to the organisation. However, it is also important to verbally contract with the individual coaching participants to ensure agreement about how each of the coaching conversations will be held, and how written reports to the organisation will be handled. In general, any written communication to a third party should be seen and agreed to by the individual coaching participant concerned before it is passed on to senior management.
In addition, a useful way of defining coaching objectives for individual coaching participants is to formulate a “professional development plan” with them. This should specify the purpose, objectives and strategy of the coaching intervention; regularly define actions to be undertaken and potential obstacles; and review results achieved and overall learning. The plan should be shared with the coaching participant’s line manager. In this way, rather than sharing the content of the coaching conversation, coach and coaching participant can share the development plan and its results with other stakeholders in the coaching process, without infringing the confidentiality of coaching conversations.
Include ethics in your contracting
The coaching contract sets out ground rules for the coaching relationship between the parties involved, including the coach, the client organisation, the individual coaching participant(s), their line manager(s), and the HR department, so that all parties are aware of their obligations. This helps prevent future misunderstandings, and provides a firm basis to deal with disagreements. The purpose of the contract is to open up the potential for trust between coach and client, and it must be adhered to in action for trust to develop.
The two most critical areas in contracting are defining the scope of the coaching intervention, and defining a framework for handling ethical issues. In general, it would help if the business coach can provide the firm and its prospective coaching participants with a set of their own standard coaching guidelines, terms and conditions, based on best-practice principles and codes of professional practice, to serve as a basis for negotiation and contracting. These should include a clarification of the coach’s adherence to the ethical code of their professional body, together with a brief outline of the coach’s stance on, and ground rules for, key areas of ethical concern – such as the question of confidentiality discussed above. A business coach’s ethical position will be much easier to defend if it has been explicitly defined and demarcated, in advance, within the coaching contract – rather than merely asserted after an ethical conflict has arisen.
Being an ethical business coach means being prepared to coach ethically – which in turns means doing the homework, explaining your position to the client organisation and individual coaching participants, and putting it in writing.
COMENSA (2009). Revised Code of Ethics. http://www.comensa.org.za/language/en-za/professional_practice/Portfolio_Committees/Ethics_Portfolio_Committee/Code_of_Ethics.aspx.
Stout Rostron, S. (2009). Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: unlocking the secrets of business coaching. Randburg: Knowres Publishing.
WABC (2007). WABC Business Coaching Competencies. http://www.wabccoaches.com/includes/ popups/definition_and_competencies.html.