Case Study

32.1 Ethics and Coaching

When coaching within an organization, we are often involved with the client who is participating in coaching, the client’s line manager, and a representative from the organization sponsoring the coaching (human resources, talent management, organizational development). Managing the expectations and conversations with the various stakeholders in the coaching relationship can be complex and potentially introduce an unintended ethical breach.

Consider the case of Owen, a mid-level leader in a technology organization. Owen’s line manager recommended coaching and supports his development. Owen selected his coach, Julie, after interviewing several coaches presented by his HR representative. Julie is on the coaching panel for the organization, and she works with people in different areas and levels of leadership.

Owen and Julie started out fabulously in their coaching. He is excited to be engaged in this process. His initial conversations included concerns about his supervisor and the impact stress is having on him and his work.

One day, as Julie was leaving the organization, she said hello to her HR contact who just happened to be talking to Dave (Owen’s line manager). Julie was introduced to Dave as the coach who is working with Owen. Dave was happy to meet her and immediately asked when she thought Owen would be making some improvement. Julie froze, thinking ‘now what?’

Discussion Questions

  • What is Julie’s responsibility to the sponsoring organization? To the client?
  • How can she answer Dave’s question without violating Owen’s confidentiality?
  • What could be done to prevent this type of dilemma?
  • Guidelines for ethical interaction

Establishing clear expectations and agreements with the client and the organizational representatives sponsoring coaching are a priority in maintaining ethical practice. It is best to have these conversations at the beginning of the coaching assignment. However, if as in Julie’s case that did not happen, it is not too late to go back and have clarifying conversations with the client and reassure him in relation to support and the confidentiality of the agreement. A coach will also want to let him know that there is a responsibility to the organization and a structure that supports him in communicating updates, measures of progress or problems with his line manager and HR, if requested, as sponsors of the coaching. Involving the client in establishing the meeting and supporting him to be accountable for updates allows him to potentially strengthen communications with his supervisor and takes the coach out of the middle.

Sustainable, significant change in the client’s inner systems can often only happen if there is corresponding and supporting change in the systems around them. Creating clarity – especially about the responsibilities of each of the people in the system – can head off many of the problems relating to unmatched expectations. Had Julie met Dave with Owen as they began their coaching, she would not have cause to feel unprepared. In this case, Julie might respond with what she knows. One response might be, ‘I’m pleased to meet you Dave. I am happy to be working with Owen.’ As the conversation continues, Julie might add, ‘It sounds like it is important for you to have updates on how the coaching is going. There are also some things I’d like you to consider as we continue the coaching. Can I follow up with you to schedule a call or a meeting time?’ This allows Julie to stay true to ethical conduct and it engages Dave in considering how he can support the client.