How do coach supervisors respond to ethical dilemmas and tricky issues? In the last of this two-part series, Jonathan Passmore, Eve Turner and Marta Filipiak conclude their research

In the last issue we asked whether coaches and their supervisors could be equally culpable if they unwittingly collude with their clients against the wider interests of the client organisation and of society.

In this second part of the series, we review coach supervisor responses to ethical dilemmas and tricky issues, picking up on four further themes from our research. We offer insights for coaches and their supervisors which may help us all navigate conflicting interests and ambiguity, and allow us to feel more confident, in the moment, about what to do when faced with tough ethical choices.

The Research

The data from this study was gathered from a series of semi-structured interviews of up to an hour with 14 coaching supervisors from North America, Europe and Asia.

The interviews were recorded, transcribed and analysed.


Seven broad themes emerged. We examined three themes in the previous issue and now consider the remaining four: Empathetic listening, safe practice, blowing the whistle and increasing ethical capability.

  1. Empathetic listening

This involved the supervisor’s and the coach’s desire to truly listen to their respective clients, to understand and empathise, and by so doing fully understand their perspective. It was achieved using three processes: norming with standards in daily life, understanding an individual’s intentions and accepting moral relativism.

Some supervisors related their ethical dilemmas to situations in their daily life (norming): “…in my own life, do I report everybody I see commit an offence? And people commit offences all the time…. I would have to think about the situation; it would depend on the severity and the impact on people and the impact on the profession” (Interview 11).

The supervisors recognised that behaviours could be reportable if they were outside of ‘common’ practice.

The other two processes (understanding an individual’s intentions and accepting moral relativism) reflected attempts by the supervisor to more fully understand the individual, by exploring their intentions. This may be the coach’s intentions, but also encourages the coach to explore the client’s intentions.

A final aspect was recognition that values differ, between people, organisations and across national cultures. Participants noted that the concept of a a widely accepted ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ had disappeared, or was limited to a few circumstances. Coaches needed to be flexible and unless there was serious illegality they needed to accept clients’ approaches, even if they felt their own may be different.

  1. Safe practice

This consists of four fundamental practices that, according to supervisors, helped to ensure a higher quality of coaching process and ethical practice: contracting, supervision, self-reflection and when to walk away.

Contracting: This refers to agreeing the terms and conditions which frame the coaching. Such contracts might be a formal agreement between the coaching provider and the purchasing company. They may also have been informal, or short written agreements between coach and client.

Contracting was recognised as a starting point to ensure safe practice and this would include a discussion on confidentiality and in what circumstances that might be breached. It can also allude to what’s acceptable in a particular context such as whether an organisation is happy for a client to discuss looking for another job (Turner & Hawkins, 2019).

Supervision: Unsurprisingly, supervisors thought they had a critical role to play in maintaining coach practice on the ‘straight and narrow’. In supervisors’ eyes this gave the space to seek advice, reflect and to resolve issues before proceeding with client work.

Self-reflection: This was described as a way to achieve self-awareness during the coaching process and an increase in the ‘choicefulness’ of both coach and client. As one respondent noted, “In some cases I might even say ‘gee, I need to be kind of careful here – I don’t want my values to get in the way’…” (Interview 1).

When to walk away: Finally, supervisors talked about the coach having the strength to leave. Drawing a clear line in the sand and being robust enough to maintain that position, meant coaches needed to be able to know ‘when to walk away’.

This was considered a last resort and only in extreme circumstances. However, most people favoured leaving over ‘blowing the whistle’, as the latter could lead to deeper involvement and unpleasant events, including investigation or court action.

  1. When to blow the whistle

In general, this was a challenging topic for supervisors. Many expressed nervousness and the complexity of reporting. There was a constant
desire to refer back to the relative nature of morals, the lack of information and ambiguity in situations – all highly relevant.

A first concern was how supervisors or their coaches might report matters. There was a lack of understanding of what to do, who to report to and at what point in the process to act.

This lack of resources, education and professional guidance highlights a gap that needs to be addressed through coach training, but also by professional bodies via the advice and ongoing support they offer to their members.

For some bodies, like the ICF, this is complicated, due to the international nature of the organisation. National bodies and chapters, however, could provide clear guidance on their websites to support their members.

There were some areas where supervisors felt their duty was clear, although these were extreme, such as the possibility of terrorism. Even in these rare eventualities the desire was for the coach to work with the client to get them to report it rather than the coach or supervisor acting.

  1. Increasing Ethical capability

Supervisors offer some thoughts on how this could be achieved, such as by making ethical standards clearer, ensuring greater discussion and training on ethical codes during basic training and exploring how individuals applied the ethical standards to real-life situations.

Another aspect was recognition of the role of self-awareness. Coach training needed to focus not just on core coach competencies but on enhancing coaches’ personal development, enabling them to understand themselves and more deeply understand how they relate to others.


The research highlights that supervisors play a critical role in supporting and enabling coaches to strive for their ethical best, but that acting ethically is complex and difficult. As Carroll and Shaw note there are “no easy answers” when it comes to ethics (2013, p.350).

Supervisors understand that ethics is a complex area. It comprises tricky issues that do not come with ‘black and white’ answers. Iordanou, Hawley and Iordanou note, “the focus…should be cast not on solving ethical issues but rather on creating those conditions and conversations that will bring them to the surface” (2017, p.186).

We share their view that ethical sensitivity sits at the heart of this issue.

Coaches and their supervisors need to be sensitive to the dilemmas that play out between people in the social process, of which coaching is a part.

When the coaching conversation happens physically between two people, the conversation isn’t taking place in a vacuum. Each story, and every action, carries with it consequences for team colleagues, fellow professionals, organisation customers, shareholders and the wider society. Bringing these perspectives into the room, and encouraging clients to think about these stakeholders as part of their deliberations, is thus one element which can help.

We also believe that ethical decision-making models have a valuable role to play. Such models are useful to complement and support ethical codes, rather than replace them. These models need to be iterative as opposed to linear and coaches need training and experience in using them, much like a driver needs experience of the emergency stop as part of their driving tuition. Our model, APPEAR, (Passmore & Turner, 2018) is just one example. There are other good examples. What matters is not which model one uses but that a framework is available to support good decision-making. That said, no models or professional body codes could ever cover the rich diversity of ethical decisions which we face and make all the time.

A third and neglected topic for ethics is the role of coach and supervisor training and continuous professional development (CPD). This research again demonstrates the need to increase the prominence of coaches’ exposure to ethical thinking during core skills training. Furthermore, that ethical development should not stop there but be an essential CPD requirement.

It should focus first on helping coaches think through practical dilemmas and how they may navigate such issues; and second, on the processes and possible routes involved to report serious illegal activity.

In the latter case both what to report and who to report matters to will vary between countries.

Finally, as coaches, and as their supervisors, we should always take a systemic perspective, going beyond the one-to-one confines of the coach-client relationship. In our view, as supervisors and coaches, we have a duty to the organisations in which our clients work and to the wider society.

In certain extremely rare, but important occasions, as coaches and supervisors we need to be bold enough to act to protect those whose voices are not heard.

When the next scandal emerges, be it an abuse in a local authority care home, sexual misconduct in political office or misreporting financial results, will coaches operating in that organisation be bold enough to whistle blow on illegal or unethical activity?
Or will we, as coaches and supervisors, allow the answer to continue ‘blowin’ in the wind’?


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