Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Code of Ethics & Confidentiality: Is it obvious what is right?

Posted on Tuesday, October 30, 2012 by International Coach Federation

Most likely all of us think of ourselves as ethical.  Then why might we look at someone else following the same rules and say they are unethical or walking the line of ethical?  Because it may be we interpret and understand the same rule differently.  Or as President Clinton once said, “It depends on what the definition of is, is.”

Confidentiality is fundamental to coaching.  If our clients thought we revealed their concerns, insecurities, and most private thoughts, it is unlikely they would engage in an authentic coaching process in the first place.  But let’s examine what we mean by confidentiality.  Let’s say I am coaching Sally Dooright, the VP of Operations at Troubled Corporation.  Most of us would agree (I think) that when I promise her confidentiality it means I won’t discuss with anyone what the two of us share and mention her by name.  However, would you say that sharing the conversation is acceptable in a session with my mentor coach?  What if I don’t mention her name, but describe enough about the situation that it would be possible to figure out who she is even if I believe my mentor coach wouldn’t be motivated to do so?  Or fast forward to 2 years later, I have done such a good job for Sally and have coached 20 executives at Troubled Corporation. The VP of HR at Troubled Corporation asks for my thoughts on the trends I am seeing among the 20 clients I coached. 

Do I share trends knowing that I am revealing some of the themes of private conversations among 20 people?  Or how about if HR asks that I run a retreat session and use my understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the 10-member VP team (of whom I have coached 5) to build an agenda for the retreat.  By implication am I revealing the weaknesses of the VP group – information I gathered in my confidential conversations….?  Finally, what if after coaching Sally I meet the CEO of Troubled Corporation and he says, “Wow that Sally is a real go-getter, I would consider her for the President role next year – what do you think?”  Is it ethical to advocate for my client or to affirm the positive perceptions of my client with the CEO without going into detail on any discussions I had with my client? 

We, as members of the ICF community hope to build an organization of coaches who are ethical and to ensure that the profession of coaching maintains an ethical reputation so as not to risk losing our client base and the ability to serve.

My intention here is provoke our thinking about ethics.  It isn’t enough to read the code of ethics and feel comfortable you walk the ethical line. I believe ethics require a process of continual definition.  Ethic statements and rules need to be lived and challenged in the real world to subject them to on-going ground-truthing.  As our experiences broaden and as our world provides new circumstances for interpretation we need to continue to communicate with each other about the meaning behind the words.

Sandi Stewart, PCC

The ICF Code of Ethics

Applicable Code Sections:Section 3: Professional Conduct with Clients

16) I will carefully explain and strive to ensure that, prior to or at the initial meeting, my coaching client and sponsor(s) understand the nature of coaching, the nature and limits of confidentiality, financial arrangements, and any other terms of the coaching agreement or contract.

Section 4: Confidentiality/Privacy
As a coach:

22) I will maintain the strictest levels of confidentiality with all client and sponsor information. I will have a clear agreement or contract before releasing information to another person, unless required by law.

23) I will have a clear agreement upon how coaching information will be exchanged among coach, client, and sponsor.

25) I will have associated coaches and other persons whom I manage in service of my clients and their sponsors in a paid or volunteer capacity make clear agreements or contracts to adhere to the ICF Code of Ethics Part 2, Section 4: Confidentiality/Privacy standards and the entire ICF Code of Ethics to the extent applicable.


  1. Hello Sandi, great and thought provoking examples you present. One thing we in ICF need to be clear about is the boundaries of confidentiality and mentor coaching. I believe and hope that the ICF will ask for the highest quality och coaching and introduce compulsory mentor coaching for coaches with credentials. This, of course, immediately rise the question you raised. Alos being a legal psychotherapist, I use different names for clients I need mentoring for and change some of the surrounding facts in order to avoid the possibility that my mentor could ever identify my client. Thus this feels like the way I would suggest also in coaching. Another point in this is that if my mentor coach also is an ICF credentialed coach, he or she, is also following the Code of Ethics. Personally, I would consider that if i - as i do- want to stay ethical, i would never reveal that I might guess the identity of a Mentee´s client.

    A more complicated situation is if a HR manager asks about trends in the coaching I have done with several leaders. I usually discuss this clearly in the three part discussions and include confidentiality and the Code of Ethics in the contract. This type of problem often is something participants in the Pan European Ethics Forum wonder about.

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