Coaching at work: The ethics boys

The UK coaching market is worth £2bn and still growing, making it highly attractive to unscrupulous operators.

“Its size and potential means you are going to get cowboys,” says Bob Garvey, professor of mentoring and coaching at Sheffield Hallam University. “Organisations must be cautious in the way they recruit coaches.”

As Garvey points out, the parameters for good behaviour in coaching extend to all sorts of areas: they refer to the conduct of the coach, the conduct of the organisation and the trust between coach, client and buyer. He says it is crucial for all parties to agree ground rules and ethical practices. “The key question for me is whose agenda is the coach working to? Is it to suit the organisation or the individual?” says Garvey.

Greater awareness

The good news is that as coaching grows, so does the groundswell of opinion towards a greater awareness of ethics.

Allard de Jong is head of leadership development at International Penna. He is also founder of the Ethical Evolution Initiative, an independent council and think-tank that he set up to foster ethics in coaching and training, and which he hopes will span other facets of life, such as politics.

He says: “Coaching is a great place to start because it is a profession, or methodology, currently not bound by a specific legal framework. One can refer to oneself as a ‘coach’ and commercially act as one without being bound by specific relevant experience or academic qualifications outlined by law-makers.”

This self-regulatory aspect is tentatively formalised by professional federations and associations, but membership, and hence compliance, are optional.

De Jong believes this puts coaches in a position of opportunity. “Coaches can play an important role in accompanying business and society from one world view to the next, from one of hierarchies to one of personal responsibility and self-reliance,” he says.

He wants to see coaches move towards “a more trustworthy ethical compass as their personal and collective spiritual intelligence develops.”

At the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), committee chair on ethics Steve Nicklen is also working to raise awareness of the subject.

Nicklen, also partner of executive coaching firm Davidson, Nicklen & Associates, is encouraging members to develop their understanding of the EMCC’s stance.

“When you join the EMCC, you should abide by its code of ethics and make clients aware of it,” he says. “But my suspicion is that some members have never even been aware of the code.”

Increasingly complicated

Nicklen says the subject is complicated and is becoming more so. He worries that coaches may be tempted to claim expertise in an area where they lack knowledge and standing, simply to get the work. Or, as coaching moves from an executive perk to an organisation-wide demand, they may find themselves coaching senior and junior members of the same team, with the danger that confidentialities could be compromised. Ultimately, the profession and the coaches have to police themselves.

Supervision is key

“Ethical issues are becoming more complex, but it is about self-management and coaches need help,” says Nicklen. “Supervision, either on a one-to-one basis or as part of a coaching circle, is central to this.”

Private organisations are also keen to set an ethical standard.

At the Business Coaching Foundation, managing director Tony Clarke-Holland wants to build on offerings such as his certificate in business coaching, with a working group to agree standards and ethics.

Like Garvey, Clarke-Holland believes there is a need to establish issues such as the duty of care. “It is to the client, not the bill payer,” he says.

According to De Jong, the further that providers, commissioners and clients of coaching go to be aware of ethics and include them in contracts and arrangements, then the simpler the coaching relationships will become.

“This simple gesture would allow the coaching profession to take the courageous and unequivocal lead in showing that the only lasting solution to the world’s problems is to clean up our act and treat people properly.”

Questions of ethics

EMCC ethics expert Steve Nicklen sets out the following guide for the buyer of coaching.

Ask the coach:

  • Which organisation or professional body are you a member of?
  • In which areas are you competent as a coach?
  • How do you work and which coaching models do you use?

An ethical coach should also demonstrate awareness of the need for:

  • A level of competence that meets the needs of the client
  • Understanding the expectations of client and sponsor
  • Boundary management and conflicts of interest
  • Integrity and confidentiality
  • Secure keeping and maintenance of all related records.

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