Ethical issues in executive coaching
The following is based on an expanded and edited version of an article by Marion Gillie that first appeared in Organisations & People in 2005.
It poses questions about what you as an executive coach would do in a number of situations where ethical or contractual issues arise in the course of a coaching relationship, identifying key issues, and offering suggestions and options.
If you are a coach, think about how you would respond in these situations, and consider whether coach supervision (either one to one, or in a peer group) would be helpful in working through these issues.
If you hire coaches, you might want to use one or more of these scenarios to see how clear your prospective coaches are about their own code of ethical conduct or boundary management.
Fortunately for both coaches and sponsoring organisations the more challenging of these situations occur rarely. However, if you do find yourself in a situation like one of these, or any situation where you feel uncertain how to respond, seek support from a qualified coach supervisor and your peers, and remember that it is never too late to recontract with your coachee and their organisation.
What would you do if…
1. It’s your first full meeting with your client after the ‘chemistry’ session. Your coachee doesn’t have his own office and suggests that you “go downstairs to the general meeting area” where most meetings in this organisation take place. When you get there, you realise that essentially the room is one large bar, and the place is filled with people having meetings in ‘hushed tones’ over a drink.
5. HR have asked you to work with a particular individual. You’ve had an initial meeting with your coachee who talks about coaching as supporting his hoped for transition into the Partnership. At the meeting with his boss you are told that your coachee is on ‘a yellow card’ (i.e. heading towards a disciplinary) but the boss hasn’t told your coachee this.
9. As time goes by you realise that you really don’t like this particular coachee, and you think it is effecting the quality of your work. But you are aware that she is very senior in the business and could easily jeopardise your work in that organisation.
10. You agreed to work with a particular coachee on helping to restore his falling motivation. Several sessions in he tells you that he is feeling seriously depressed and ‘really can’t see much point in anything anymore’.
11. Your coachee tells you that she has sought legal advice and is planning to take legal action against the company for unfair treatment. She hasn’t discussed this yet with her bosses and wants your help in supporting her case.
13. You hear that a fellow coach in the same organisation is using psychometric instruments that you know he is not qualified to use, and from what you are told, it sounds as though he is using them inappropriately.
14. Your coachee tells you that his boss has told him to get rid one of his direct reports (whom your coachee actually rates positively), and that if he doesn’t, his boss has hinted that your coachee’s career will be in jeopardy.
18. Because of diary pressure, you agree to meet the boss over dinner, and the coachee joins you a bit later. During the meal your client drinks a significant amount of wine. After the boss leaves your tipsy client starts flirting with you.
1. It’s your first full meeting with your client after the ‘chemistry’ session. Your coachee doesn’t have his own office and suggests that you “go downstairs to the general meeting area” where most meetings in this organisation take place. When you get there, you realise that essentially the room is one large bar, and the place is filled with people having meetings in ‘hushed tones’ over a drink. The first question is ‘would you hold a coaching session in a setting like this? After all, some coaches meet their coachees as a matter of course in hotel lobbies. If it’s not your normal practice you could: a) give it a go and see what happens, after all, it is what the people in this organisation are used to, so you’d see your coachee as he is in his normal environment. b) be up front and say that you would prefer to work in a private room, and postpone the meeting until you or he has fixed this up. c) say that this isn’t how you’d prefer to work all of the time, but that you’re ok about trying it out on this first meeting. [back to top]
Your coachee reveals that he has awarded a big contract to a friend of his. He shrugs this off as 'not a big deal'
2. Your coachee inadvertently reveals that he has awarded a big contract (financially) to a friend of his. When questioned, he shrugs this off as ‘not a big deal’. The issues: At best this may break an organisational code of ethics, which may be a serious offence (depending on the nature of the business and the size of the contract), at worst it is potentially fraud. How ‘big’ does a misdemeanour have to be for you to feel obliged to take action? If you coach senior leaders, what responsibility do think you have to your coachees in ensuring appropriate corporate governance of their businesses? Do you know what your client organisation’s position is about your legal obligations regarding confidentiality? Once you know about it you can’t not know, so if it is serious, professionally you have an obligation to act. You could shrug it off with a quip "I’ll pretend you didn’t say that…" but then your coaching relationship no longer holds real integrity. One option would be to explain that you can’t continue as though you hadn’t heard what he’d said, and that you need to understand the implications. Explore what the coachee’s motivation was for doing this and what his options now are. If he is regretful / sorry and believes he acted foolishly, explore how he can ‘come clean’ in the organisation. If the coachee becomes defensive / aggressive you need to decide if this is someone you want to continue to work with and under what circumstances (e.g. if the coachee is prepared to examine their behaviour as part of the coaching agenda). Finally, if you think that the misdemeanour is serious, seek your own legal advice before acting in the organisation, and make sure that your coaching notes clearly document the facts. [back to top]
3. Your coachee tells you that she is planning to leave the organisation and is biding her time for the most advantageous time to go. The issues: who do you see as your ‘client’ – the person in front of you and / or the organisational sponsor? To whom do you personally feel most loyal? What do you see as your obligation to the organisation? What is your contract of confidentiality? What impact would her leaving in this way have on the business – e.g. what if she were a pivotal person in a major project / leading a major M&A? At what point would you feel obliged to disclose behaviour that could potentially damage the organisation? What is your view on whether this is a good move for her? What’s your personal view of her behaviour – inauthentic, unethical or fair enough in today’s business world? One option would be to talk about your dilemma with her (i.e. your desire to support her and your obligation to take the organisation into account) and discuss the concerns it raises for you. A further option would be to disclose your own view of her action. You may believe that your personal judgement is not relevant to your coaching work, but your opinion will inevitably ‘leak’ into your coaching work, and it would certainly be more authentic as a coach to own up to your own bias. Re–contract to help her leave in the most helpful way to both herself and the organisation. [back to top]
You hear that your married coachee is having an affair with another senior manager, and 'people are beginning to talk'
5. HR have asked you to work with a particular individual. You’ve had an initial meeting with your coachee who talks about coaching as supporting his hoped for transition into the Partnership. At the meeting with his boss you are told that your coachee is on ‘a yellow card’ (i.e. heading towards a disciplinary) but the boss hasn’t told your coachee this. The issues: who do you see as your ‘client’ – your coachee and/or the sponsor? What ‘buttons’ does this press for you (e.g. feelings of being used/manipulated by the boss or HR)? What do you see as the boundaries between coaching and line management? One option would be to be clear with the boss that this is a line management issue i.e. it’s their job to exit people, not yours. Explore with the boss their reasons for not being ‘up–front’ with your coachee. A further option would be to offer to support a three-way meeting to explore this between the manager and the coachee, then support the coachee in either exiting with dignity or doing what is required of them to stay. However, if the boss refuses to be up-front with your coachee, and you can’t disclose the situation to your coachee, you may consider withdrawing from the contract. You may also want to find out how much of this HR knew when putting you in front of the client in the first place. [back to top]
6. You are coaching several members of the same team and two of them tell you that the third is bullying a member of her staff. You have not picked up a hint of this from the coachee in question. The issues: What is your contract of confidentiality with the sponsor, individuals and with the team (if it is a team coaching contract)? What is their motive in telling you and what do they hope you will do? What stops them from confronting their colleague? Who do you feel most loyal to? What do you see as your responsibility if someone is genuinely being bullied? What do you see the role of their line manager as being in this? Again, do you know what your client organisation’s position is about your legal obligations regarding confidentiality? An obvious option would be to coach the two of them on how to have a conversation with their colleague and/or their manager about this matter. A slightly indirect option might be to explore with the ‘alleged bully’ in more depth the relationship that she has with her reports. This might include a contract to hold upward feedback interviews with her direct reports and get anonymous feedback from them – as a way of getting data that you can work with together. If her reports don’t raise the issue, you may have an interesting discussion to hold with the ‘accusers’. A more direct option would be to disclose that you have heard something that has surprised you without breaking confidentiality, and raise the issue directly with the coachee. (If you are working with a coachee who is being bullied at work, you could look at the guide on the UK government website. In the US, you may wish to start with Workplace Bullying, with links to a network of organisations, services, support and information devoted to the issue.) [back to top]
When you meet your coachee in the afternoons he more often than not smells of alcohol
8. You get a call from your coachee’s boss who asks you to give him feedback about your coachee to include in the performance review process. The issues: what is your contract of confidentiality and what is the boss’ motivation for asking you? What is the performance review used for, is it for development purposes alone or does it influence renumeration? The most obvious option would be explore what the boss hopes to achieve and the implications for your coachee. If the motive is a supportive one, a clear option would be to say that you would only do this if your coachee agrees and that you would like to show your coachee what you have written before submitting it. If you have doubts about the boss’ intent, you might explore with the boss issues like what feedback is s/he withholding from your client that s/he hope you might provide? You can always use confidentiality as a reason why it would not be appropriate. [back to top]
As time goes by you realise that you really don't like this particular coachee, but she is very senior in the business and could easily jeopardise your work in that organisation
10. You agreed to work with a particular coachee on helping to restore his falling motivation. Several sessions in he tells you that he is feeling seriously depressed and ‘really can’t see much point in anything anymore’. The issue: what have you contracted to work on with this coachee and where do you personally draw the line between coaching and counselling? What understanding do you have about depression? I believe that you owe it to your coachee as part of your duty of care to explore what the coachee means by this, how serious he is, what action he might be contemplating (is he potentially talking about quitting work or quitting life?). Whether or not you are familiar with the typical symptoms of depression, one option is to encourage your coachee to see his GP as many mood disorders have organic origins. An additional option would be to recommend a counsellor / therapist. You might then re–contract to work with him to explore how he can get appropriate support at work and how he can be as functional as possible in the workplace. This kind of situation raises another dilemma, you could spend many sessions simply ‘being with him’ or trying to raise his spirits, without seeing any real shift. What is your stance on this? There is no doubt that this kind of support serves a purpose, but is it your role as a coach? How do you feel about his organisation paying you to do this? How would they feel? An option here would be to set a clear deadline to review whether the coaching is having any positive impact in terms of his productivity at work, or you might agree to resume coaching when his counselling starts to have a positive effect. [back to top]
11. Your coachee tells you that she has sought legal advice and is planning to take legal action against the company for unfair treatment. She hasn’t discussed this yet with her bosses and wants your help in supporting her case. The issues: she is telling you something that could be potentially damaging to the organisation. To what extent do you believe that you have a responsibility to the sponsoring organisation? Her action is also highly likely to be a kiss of death to her immediate and possible subsequent career prospects. What ‘values’ buttons does it press for you? What if you think her complaint is justified, e.g. you are aware that she is being bullied or discriminated against? If she takes this action, might there be a risk to your reputation as a coach in the organisation? What will you write in your coaching notes? An obvious option would be to explore the full implications of this course of action with her, what options she has before taking such drastic action. You might encourage her to meet with her boss and HR, offer to facilitate or, even better, to find someone neutral to facilitate. If she is serious about taking it forward, would you be prepared to testify in her favour and risk losing your contract with the organisation? You might, particularly if you had information that supported her case. Alternatively, a different option would be to explain that it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to testify in her favour because you have an obligation to the organisation too. However, you might be prepared to comment on the coaching work that you and she have done together. Finally, if she still insists on taking legal action without prior discussion with HR/bosses, you need to decide whether you feel obliged to brief HR, and if you do, to be clear with your coachee about your intent. If it goes that far your coaching relationship is at an end in any case. [back to top]
Your coachee tells you that he has some 'whistle blowing' information about financial mismanagement
13. You hear that a fellow coach in the same organisation is using psychometric instruments that you know he is not qualified to use, and from what you are told, it sounds as though he is using them inappropriately. The issue is how much of an issue is this for you? You might be able to shrug it off and assume that he ‘probably knows what he’s doing’. Or it might raise concerns for you about the integrity of the coaching profession and/or the potential harm an unqualified person might do in the organisation? If you know the person one option is to have a conversation with him about your concerns and the ethical issues it raises. If you don’t know him, is it possible to contact him in the spirit of wanting to support a professional colleague? If he tells you to ‘mind your own business’ a further option would be to have a conversation with HR in the interest of maintaining professional standards. Without naming names, explore how they ensure that coaches are qualified to use the metrics that they do use. In this way you don’t undermine your colleague but you do uphold the ethics of professional coaching. [back to top]
14. Your coachee tells you that his boss has told him to get rid one of his direct reports (whom your coachee actually rates positively), and that if he doesn’t, his boss has hinted that your coachee’s career will be in jeopardy. The issues: do you have a contract to engage the boss in the coaching work? What values issues does it trigger in you (e.g. the boss using indirect threats / bullying)? One option would be to coach your coachee to have a dialogue with their boss about their differing perceptions and to have an overt conversation about the implications of not getting rid of the report. A further option is to coach the coachee in how to deal with this form of bullying from a boss and help him explore his further options, such as going to see HR. [back to top]
15. Your coachee’s marriage broke down earlier in the year, and this is all your coachee seems to want to talk about in your sessions. The issues: to what extent do you allow your coachee to simply ‘get it off their chest’ and where do you draw the line between a) this and ‘productive coaching work’ and b) coaching and counselling? One option would be to support your coachee early on in his/her need to ‘talk it out’. You might explore whether s/he is getting the right kind of support inside and outside work and how s/he is dealing with all of this at work and how to develop strategies for coping. If it persists, however, you have the option of telling your coachee that you recognise that the marriage breakdown is a major event for him/her and that it is clearly affecting them deeply, but… your contract is coaching and you are not a counsellor (suggest counselling as an option). You have the option to suspend your coaching work until the coachee is more able to re–engage at that level of work. [back to top]
Your coachee calls to say he's been suspended for having been caught with 'highly inappropriate material' on his computer, and he wants you to support him
You are aware of increasing attraction that has a ‘sexual charge’ in your coaching relationship
18. Because of diary pressure, you agree to meet the boss over dinner, and the coachee joins you a bit later. During the meal your client drinks a significant amount of wine. After the boss leaves your tipsy client starts flirting with you. The first question here is, would you have a meeting like this over dinner? If you did, would you drink alcohol or not? Some coaches would, others wouldn’t on the grounds that it would not set the right climate for the professional nature of the work. However, if you did find yourself in this situation the obvious thing to do would be to close the meeting as quickly as possible. You’d need to be very aware of how you manage this from your side. Given the environment (and the alcohol) it would be so easy to fall into the trap of making light of it (joking and potentially colluding with the flirting), or being shocked into a strong negative reaction. Holding your own boundary in a clear, adult way would take careful ‘self-regulation’. You also need to make a decision about whether you want to work with this person. You could opt not to take it any further, possibly telling your client and boss that you don’t think that you would be the right coach. However, what you do have is very interesting data about how this client doesn’t manage his/her own boundaries, which might be core to the work that needs to be done. You could chose to work with this person, but agree that going forward it only be in work hours and in a proper meeting room. You could then ‘hold in mind’ the possibility that boundary mismanagement / inappropriate behaviour choices might be a part of the coaching agenda, and if it is, invite the coachee to explore that first meeting in these terms, helping them to make meaning in their wider world. [back to top]
You will undoubtedly have noticed that there are a number of recurring themes. On contracting and boundary management the main ones are: clarity (or lack of it) of expectations about the relationship between the coach and coachee and between the coach and the boss / sponsoring organisation. Clarity about how the boundaries between these relationships will be handled. Clarity about what confidentiality means in practice, what your contractual obligation is with the sponsoring organisation, and when and how confidentiality would actually be broken. These are the issues that should be discussed at a first meeting (obvious I know, but it is surprising how often I hear from coaching supervisees that they have omitted to do this clearly enough). Then there are themes relating to the coach and his/her stance on certain issues, e.g. the circumstances under which s/he would withdraw from the coaching relationship, what certain issues trigger for the coach, and linked to confidentiality, the circumstances under which the coach feels obligated to involve HR. These are the issues that need to be raised a) in coaching supervision, then b) with the coachee as appropriate.
There is also the issue of keeping client notes. One scenario includes the possibility of having to testify in court, and, if this were to happen, it is highly likely that you would be asked to produce your client notes. If you hold electronic versions and are working in the United Kingdom, you should register under the Data Protection Act. So it is important that you have a clear note taking policy and are aware that under certain circumstances they may be read by others. Many coaches follow the principles of good psychotherapy practice, they only take purely factual notes for possible public consumption, and any ‘private’ notes (e.g. for internal supervision purposes) are completely anonymous.
As I said at the start, fortunately for both coaches and sponsoring organisations the more challenging of these situations occur rarely. However, if you do find yourself in a situation like one of these, or any situation where you feel uncertain how to respond, seek support from a qualified coach supervisor and your peers, and remember that it is never too late to recontract with your coachee and their organisation.
What if… Ethical issues in Executive Coaching is © Copyright 2009 Marion Gillie