Ethics in Coaching: Are Your Actions and Decisions Praiseworthy or Simply Permissible?

What images come to mind when you read the following list of professions: banker, firefighter, life coach, musician, politician, surgeon, scientist, sports coach, and teacher? Now, think about the attitudes or emotions that accompany those mental images. Unless you have personal relationships with people who operate in any one of the professions listed, you likely relied on a stereotype of each profession to form your mental images and attitudes. When I think of professional life coaches, for example, I imagine well-groomed individuals with above average emotional intelligence and an innate sense of ethics. Yet, more so than our professions, our life experiences, our religious beliefs, our upbringing and other factors shape our sense of ethics. That means we generally all have a code of ethics by which we operate despite our profession. Truth is, individual life coaches are not necessarily more ethical than individuals in other professions are, though perceptions about ethics and trustworthiness do vary by profession. Certainly, in some professions (like life coaching) the perception that you are unethical can have greater consequences on your career than it does for other professions. It is not fair, but I would argue that it is good for the industry.

When it comes to ethics in coaching, the International Coach Federation (ICF) has a code by which all coaches must adhere. The ICF sets forth a preamble as well as definitions of the people impacted by its coaches and its code of ethics. The ICF also established 28 distinct standards of ethical conduct and a pledge that all ICF coaches must acknowledge and honor. The pledge is as follows:

As an ICF coach, I acknowledge and agree to honor my ethical and legal obligations to my coaching clients and sponsors, colleagues, and to the public at large. I pledge to comply with the ICF Code of Ethics and to practice these standards with those whom I coach, teach, mentor or supervise.

If I breach this Pledge of Ethics or any part of the ICF Code of Ethics, I agree that the ICF in its sole discretion may hold me accountable for so doing. I further agree that my accountability to the ICF for any breach may include sanctions, such as loss of my ICF Membership and/or my ICF Credentials.

ACCOUNTABILITY

I added the emphasis on the words “accountable” and “accountability” in the preamble. As Christian coaches in business, ministry, and the overlap of the two, we should welcome accountability. The concept of accountability and being accountable to others are customary to our faith. However, no code of ethics can anticipate and address every ethical dilemma we may encounter. Yes, we can reach out to the ICF or other trusted coaching professionals for advice in those gray areas of coaching ethics. Still, in those undefined spaces that require an immediate decision, there is no question that our cultivated code of ethics will influence our behavior. It is natural. However, when it does, consider asking yourself this question as a coach to help shape your ethical actions and decisions:

Will my actions or decisions in this situation demonstrate an ethical response that is praiseworthy or simply permissible?

It’s an intriguing question. A good place to examine such a scenario and dilemma is in the Parable of the Sadhu by Bowen McCoy, a former Morgan Stanley executive. In the parable, McCoy gives an account of a personal ethical dilemma he faced on a mountain hike in Nepal with a group of strangers from different parts of the world. The group’s dilemma was this: Do we take personal responsibility for a man who is found freezing on the mountain trail, or do we do just enough to keep him alive, leave him, and continue with our once-in-a-life-time hiking experience, which is directly related to our employment (it’s the reason they were all there in the first place)? In other words, in this situation, do we do what is ethically praiseworthy, or simply what is ethically permissible? You can find the entire article here or you can read the summary here .

After you read the parable, ask yourself the following questions pertaining to the ethics of their decision (your own responses may surprise you, in a positive and truthful way):

  • Did the climbers know that the man was possibly on a journey of “spiritual enlightenment”?
  • Did they interfere to save his life, or
  • Did they interfere because their own cultural and ethical sensibilities would not allow them to pass a dying man, no matter the reason he was in the predicament?
  • Did they value the experience of the climb over the man’s life?
  • If the individuals on the hike were a group of team members instead of a group of strangers, would they have behaved differently?

As we head into 2018, Lord willing, one of the best things we can do as coaching professionals is to adhere to a code of ethics and a standard of excellence that honors the industry where we do business and/or where we minister. The ICF code of ethics is a guideline that ICF coaches must honor to remain in compliance with the organization. The guidelines protect the coaches and the people and organizations they serve. Sometime before the New Year, consider re-reading the ICF Code of Ethics here and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What standards am I unclear about and/or what standards challenge my own set of values?
  • How can I make these ethical standards a more visible part of my day-to-day operations as a coach in business and/or ministry?
  • In those areas of my coaching practice that the ICF Code of Ethics does not address, will I make ethical decisions that are permissible or praiseworthy as a professional?
  • When my clients think of me as a coaching professional, what image comes to mind and what attitude or emotion emerges for them?

As detailed as the ICF Code of Ethics is, it was never drafted to answer every possible ethical situation we will face as coaches. Our deeper sense of ethics comes from who we are as individuals and the beliefs, experiences, and people that have shaped our lives over the years. We take those standards into every personal and professional encounter. Yet, because we are coaches, we operate under a sort of banner of expectations and stereotypes for our industry that may be higher than those of other professions. We will encounter situations in coaching that require us to make quick decisions. If you are an ICF coach, it is advisable that you become familiar with the code of ethics for the organization as it can impact your membership and credential status if you are every found in breach. However, a good rule of thumb is to strive for conduct as a coach that is not simply permissible but praiseworthy. It will challenge your standard of excellence as a professional and as a person.

*THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE CCNI DECEMBER 2017 NEWSLETTER.*

Author: L. Marie Trotter is a business writer, book and magazine publishing expert, speaker, radio host, and trained life coach. She received her coach training through Erickson College, and she is a PCC member of the International Coach Federation. Her coaching niches are author and book development, community and organizational capacity building, leadership development, and communications. Marie is the founder of L.A.M.P. Sessions (Leadership Accountability Mentorship and Prayer), which connects and trains Christian women in leadership. Marie is currently the CCNI President-Elect.

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