Ethics are often inextricably linked to issues of confidentiality, beneficence, autonomy, justice, trust, respect and sensitivity. There is, therefore, a need, when working with people, in a coaching relationship, for a safeguard system that can guarantee that these precepts are upheld.

Often these safeguards are represented by written (or unwritten) protocols, codes of practice, deontology and procedures. These safeguards should ensure minimum interference, be it psychological, social or physical that do not encroach or intrude on, or harm the lives of individuals as users of coaching / guidance / counselling.

It is important to be clear about the aims of workplace coaching. I would argue that it is to enhance the service to the client, but we must be very clear (once again) about who the client actually is.

In order to avoid the semantic minefield that this issue raises I would like to clarify (in my personal scope) the client as, for all intents and purposes, the company – or the human resource department / manager to be more exact – (‘buying’ coaching) and the person ‘receiving’ coaching as the user.

This means that the coach is the guarantor of both the quality of the service being delivered and of the beneficence of the coaching to both the user and the client. We could argue that there will, inevitably, be a clash of interests due to the (unintentional or intentional) ‘undirective directiveness’ of coaching. By ‘undirective directiveness’ I mean guiding a person where they may not have known where to go, or how to get there but not carrying them – basically facilitating.

There could also be several ‘concurrent’ agendas running at the same time – that of the user, the client or the head of department – of course an experienced coach should be able to correlate these issues in the majority of situations, but there could be times where the coach will need to refer, confer or seek help in order to advise or provide a coherent solution to a particular problem. There could also be times where the coach ‘possesses’ sensitive or potentially damaging information to the user or the client, it is at this moment that there is a need for a clear plan of action that should be ‘guided’ by a code of conduct or a set of guidelines.

We must, however, be very clear that the coach does not have to have all of the answers to all of the problems – the reality (in practice) does not always match the rhetoric, however, and some coaches will (often) feel the need to supply the answers that will result in a very thin attempt at producing a ‘damage control’ solution.

The coach should (arguably) be better guided by a procedure that would help them to clarify and examine problematic situations.

We could further argue that the bulk of our work in coaching involves, to a greater extent, behavioural change during a development programme.Confidentiality is essentially very difficult, if not impossible to ensure.

Folklore tells us that a secret is not a secret until it is shared, so certain breaches of confidentiality are, perhaps, inevitable.

It could be assumed that sharing confidential information is not an issue if the information goes no further, but we would need to be very careful about how the ‘knowledge’ of certain information can challenge assumptions, provoke reaction or be used against the client or user, if it were to ‘fall into the wrong hands’.

Of course the more harmful or damaging the information to the user or the client the greater the risk on the impact of the quality of coaching delivered – at some points the coach needs to know when to call it a day!

Here we see the ‘importance’ or potential of confidential information in a field that differs from counselling or psychotherapy – ‘damage’ that could result from action or non-action could arguably be more of a material (financial or strategic) than harmful to a person, however, the practitioner has “some form of shared responsibility for the consequences”.

It is important to understand that in coaching we are not dealing with counselling of problematic situations or dysfunction so the need for confidentiality to protect the user takes on a slightly different dimension.

A (pure) counsellor can sometimes find themselves in situations where the life of the user is at risk, so the stakes are a lot higher and confidentiality can have life or death repercussions.

A coach has to make decisions that they have to live with so the decisions need to be the best available for the situation, but would not necessarily mean a real life-threat to the user, although one could formulate a philosophical argument that could, in extremis have a serious outcome.

An example, I have from my own experience, is of a Human Resources manager who called to say that a certain person engaged in a coaching programme was going to be sacked in a matter of weeks. The person in question had planned 3 coaching sessions in the ensuing 3 weeks, the H.R. manager wanted the coach to ‘break the news’ and to cancel the coaching, which we refused to do.

In this case the values of respect, moral values and integrity were put at risk, and the matter could have been exacerbated if a coach had unwittingly ‘let the cat out of the bag’ during the sessions.

Another instance where we as coaches are privy to certain confidential information is when conceiving a development plan with a client we are often told of possible career changes of potential users of coaching.

Here it is very important that the ‘umbrella of confidentiality’ is somewhat watertight, any leakage could, potentially, pose severe problems for the client, and indeed the integrity of the coach.

I have also been told by a user in a coaching session that she (sic) was on the verge of leaving a company. I had (and still do have) a very good, open working relationship with the human resource department which gave me a certain moral dilemma – do I share the information and risk losing the trust of the user or do I retain the information and risk losing the trust of the human resource department?After deliberation I decided to keep the information confidential but, shared it with my line-manager and my team who had contact with the user.

The result proved that I had probably taken the right decision, the person left the company and the human resource department informed me that she was leaving.

The majority of ethical or moral dilemmas that we encounter on a day-to-day basis sometimes stem from the role-diffusion that we have in our jobs.

I am a coach, a facilitator, and a client manager.

Sometimes split-loyalties appear that make certain decisions more difficult to take, a concept evoked by Hughes with problems when roles split as in “… subsequent identity problems for counsellor-teachers, constantly required to switch between teacher-pupil and counsellor-client types of relationships”. Hughes (1989).

However the British Association for Counselling (BAC) make a distinction, “between ‘counselling’ and ‘using counselling skills’” “ …. to provide a conceptual and ethical distinction for this kind of situation”.

Interestingly, Oberer and Lee (1986) “compare workplace counselling with attempting to do family therapy with one’s own family”, this perhaps helps to illustrate the complexity of these situations,  in terms of ethics.

The importance of finding the best solution to a problem by taking the best (available) course of action is paramount.

Decisions are often taken in the light of experience and intuition, which Kitchener (1984) refutes as “not sufficient”.

Most decisions are taken after consultation with colleagues in order to be able to see a particular problem from a variety of angles with the added dimension of other people’s perceptions and experiences.

This form of ‘intellectual networking’ is vital to both congruence, coherency, logic and clarity, in terms of decision making, although a high level of self-awareness is required to be able to see where one’s capacity becomes over-stretched and where ‘referral’ or networking is needed in order to plan a decision.

This, in turn, requires that the ‘intellectual atmosphere and culture’ of the organisation is one that encourages growth, reflection and learning from within the organisation.

People need to be able to live with the consequences of their decisions and to be able to accept failure or mistakes, but there must be an unthreatening context in which to foster honesty, transparency, and integrity. “There is certainly room for spontaneity in counselling but not for impulsivity”. Carroll (1995).

Epstein and Simon (1990) include other concepts that can be considered as ethical issues in workplace counselling, including; “excessive familiarity, non-clinical business matters, breaches of confidentiality, satisfaction of their own needs, impressing the client, asking favours of clients, being lax and being sadistic”.

Could we consider that a request for an introduction from a client to another person working in another company in order to develop business or commercial relations as a breach of ethics?

In my opinion, at least in France, it is a perfectly acceptable way in which to conduct business.

It appears that ethical issues, problems and dilemmas are inevitable when working with any element of a human dimension. The act of taking action (or not) should not be taken lightly but weighed up in terms of the benefits or harm that the action could cause to the client or the user, acting for the greater good. The causal effects of a problem need to be examined as well as the immediate and peripheral damage that can be caused when a course of action or non-action is decided upon.

In summary, it is essential to have a reference, in terms of a code of practice / ethics / deontology or a procedure to deal with everyday problem solving and decision-making as a starting-point.

When we formulate this type of ‘protocol’ we should be very clear that the client and the user will not necessarily subscribe to these ‘ground rules’ in terms of ethics and confidentiality.

It is important that the coach is able to tune in to a multitude of variables that can affect the outcomes of coaching in the workplace; organisational culture, individuals, departmental culture, management styles and group dynamics, to cite but a few.

In my view, coaching starts with the individual, where are they at a certain moment in time, professionally, psychologically, socially etc. – both the coach and the user construct a reciprocal dialogue that involves elements of trust and openness, free of blame, judgement, magnanimity, ego and narcissism.


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