Dr Ioanna Iordanou of Oxford Brookes University Business School and author of Values and Ethics in Coaching, discusses the challenges of Codes of Ethics and proposes a systemic approach to an ethical coaching practice
Over the past two decades, coaching has seen global exponential growth. Yet, unlike other relevant ‘helping’ professions, such as medicine, nursing, social work and psychology, coaching continues to remain largely unregulated.
As a result, ethical standards of professional practice are primarily self-imposed and no coach is obliged to comply with any specific code of ethics if he or she does not wish to do so (Iordanou et al., 2017; Brennan and Wildflower, 2014).ver the past two decades, coaching has seen global exponential growth. Yet, unlike other relevant ‘helping’ professions, such as medicine, nursing, social work and psychology, coaching continues to remain largely unregulated.
With a lack of established rules to ring-fence the ethical credibility of the coaching profession, how do coaches make ethical decisions? According to practitioner literature, intuition and professional idealism are reported to be their first port of call. As Passmore (2009: 8) appositely put it, “Most coaches are in most cases ethical pluralists, who hold to a few solid principles, but for most of what they do they consider the circumstances of the situation and consider the motives and situations of the characters involved to help them reach a decision about the course of action to follow.”
Other coaches invest their time, toil and resources on professional development and accreditation. This entails the adoption of a prescriptive code of ethics imposed by their chosen professional coaching body. However, professional coaching associations have no legal power in case of misconduct on the part of the coach (Iordanou and Williams, 2016). A second question that arises then is this: is a well-defined, yet rather informal, list of guidelines adequate to cater for the variety of ethical issues that coaches encounter in their professional practice?
Most coaches do enter the profession with genuine intentions of helping their clients to achieve intended changes and goals. The best of intentions, however, cannot guarantee good judgement and practice. Challenging circumstances that call for difficult decisions may lead to poor judgement or inability to prevent substandard practice in a timely manner.
A long series of recent scandals in relevant professions within the realm of health and social care are testament to this (Bond, 2015: 297-298). While codes of ethics are designed to prevent poor practice or ill-behaviour, they cannot and do not exempt us from difficult decisions.
And ethical decisions premised on moral principles are not always easy to make. This is because doing the right thing may not always feel right. This feeling of ‘wrong-ness’ becomes the basis of the coach’s trustworthiness and personal accountability to clients, colleagues and any other relevant stakeholders in the coaching process.
Moreover, codes of ethics cannot guarantee a solution to every ethical problem a coach faces in practice. While they can furnish the platform on which to build an ethical practice, there is a paradox: they can, at times, be too complex for practitioners to adopt, and too simplistic to guide them on the intrinsically complex issues in their professional practice. Instead, the instrumentality of codes lies in enabling moral thinking, functioning, thus, as a quality assurance mechanism (Bailey and Schwartzberg, 1995). In sum, while prescriptive codes of ethics can provide some moral shortcuts for ethical behaviour, they cannot enforce or monitor it (Iordanou et al, 2017).
Additionally, the existence of prescriptive codes of ethics that attempt some degree of pervasiveness are likely to compromise the mere reality of genuine ethical dilemmas that naturally arise during the coaching practice (Garvey et al, 2014: 226-227). These are a product of the pluralistic range of individual, cultural and professional values that coaches about the world bring into the coaching practice on a daily basis. This pluralism of values, while most welcome, can at times cause confusion as to what is ethically accepted behaviour and what is not.
What then can guarantee the coach’s ethical commitment, if established codes of ethics or the coach’s professional idealism are inadequate?
A starting point could be the development of a professional culture that prioritises a shared understanding of ethical standards, regardless of prescribed recipes for best practice (Iordanou et al, 2017).
In essence, this means capitalising on existing ethical strategies: clear contracting; conscious reflection; regular supervision; continuing professional development and, importantly, open communication between coaches and other relevant shareholders, even inviting client input.
These are some of the strategies that will enable us to bring (and keep) our professional values and ethics at the forefront of our coaching practice (Iordanou et al, 2017).
By consequence, this means developing a systemic approach geared towards social and collective imperatives. Let me explain. Most coaches would agree that it is their ethical responsibility to safeguard their client. Yet, this is not always straightforward. This is because the client is usually part of a wider social system, such as an organisation or a family. What is our ethical responsibility to this system?
Consider a scenario where, as part of the coaching you offer to an individual, they decide to leave the organisation that sponsors the coaching or the spouse that subsidises it. What is our ethical accountability to this greater whole? I propose prioritising the creation of those conditions and conversations that will bring these questions to the surface, over solving ethical issues. It is our systematic espousal of inclusive and generative values and ethics that will contribute to the development, advancement and dissemination of ethical coaching practices and, in consequence, the reliability of coaching as a profession (Iordanou et al, 2017).
- Dr Ioanna Iordanou is senior lecturer in HRM (Coaching and Mentoring) at Oxford Brookes University Business School
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- T Bond, Standards and Ethics for Counselling in Action (4th edn). London: SAGE Publishing, 2015
- D Brennan and L Wildflower, ‘Ethics in coaching’, in E Cox, T Bachkirova and D Clutterbuck (eds), The Complete Handbook of Coaching (2nd edn), pp430-44. London: SAGE Publishing, 2014
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- I Iordanou, R Hawley and C Iordanou, Values and Ethics in Coaching. London: SAGE Publishing, 2017
- I Iordanou and P Williams, ‘Developing ethical capabilities of coaches’, in T Bachkirova, G Spence and D B Drake (eds), The Sage Handbook of Coaching. London: SAGE Publishing, 2016
- J Passmore, ‘Coaching ethics: Making ethical decisions – novices and experts’, in The Coaching Psychologist, 5(1), pp6-10, 2009