Most people understand that coaching when on a 1:1 coaching basis, is a confidential conversation. But what does confidential actually mean in this context? And what do we mean by ethics?
Confidentiality in workplace coaching
Absolute confidentiality is actually very rare, and in workplace coaching, neither achievable nor helpful. In workplace coaching, there needs to be a clear set of confidentiality boundaries which are agreed upon at the outset by the coach, coachee, sponsor, and any other specific stakeholders eg. HR/Talent dept. These boundaries will form part of the coaching contract.
Fundamentally, the content of the coaching conversations between coach and coachee should not be disclosed to a third party, unless it is agreed at the outset, such as the sharing of public goals with the sponsor, or coachee/sponsor progress reviews, etc, or with the coach’s coaching supervisor – in which case the coachee should be made aware of the purpose of coaching supervision, and how the coach will contract with their supervisor to maintain the confidentiality of the coachee.
It may be the case that number of coaching sessions, dates and venues, etc is a matter of record for the HR or OD Departments, and the coachee may choose to share the content of their coaching conversations with third parties as their prerogative. The coach however may not share any content, unless it has been specifically agreed in advance in the contract. There are two key circumstances however when the coach must consider the confidentiality boundary breached. These are:
when there is convincing evidence of serious danger or harm to the coachee or others if the coach withholds information from the appropriate third party eg. sponsor/HR
when the coach has convincing evidence that the coachee or others are assisting or colluding in conduct that is dishonest, unlawful, unprofessional, or discriminatory
Under these circumstances, which should be clearly defined in the coaching contract, the coach is under obligation and duty of care to disclose the information to the appropriate authority or third party. Ideally, the coachee should be encouraged to make the disclosure themselves, and the coach supports the coachee to do this in an agreed timeframe, which clearly should be immediate if there is an issue of harm, child protection, or unlawful behavior.
Ethics in workplace coaching
Ethics in workplace coaching is about an appreciation of what is right and wrong in certain situations, and how to act in those situations. Often ethics will be reduced to a set of rules or guidelines to help individuals act appropriately. In coaching, the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), the International Coach Federation (ICF), and the International Association of Coaching (IAC) each have their own set of ethical guidelines for their members, which are similar and generally cover the key area of:
Competence – the coach is competent and engaged in professional development
Context – the coaching is relevant and appropriate to the background context
Boundary Management – the coach will not work outside their professional capability and will refer the coachee to another professional if necessary
Integrity – maintain confidentiality within the terms of the contract and unless there are grounds for breaking confidentiality as previously agreed, such as to conduct that is dishonest, unlawful, unprofessional, or discriminatory
Professionalism – act professionally in the best interests of the coachee/client and not exploit the coachee/client in any way
Ethical guidelines such as these will be strictly adhered to by the vast majority of coaches who take their coaching responsibilities and professionalism very seriously. There will always be situations that fall outside of or are in a grey area of interpretation of an ethical code, and these situations can create ethical dilemmas for the coach as it may be unclear to them how they should best behave or react to maintain ethical professionalism in the situation. On these rare occasions, the coach should resort to professional coaching supervision to help them manage and work through the dilemma in the best interests of the coachee and client.