There are a number of ethical considerations to bear in mind when retaining and storing information in coaching. Christiana Iordanou, Ioanna Iordanou and Rachel Hawley report
While writing and keeping effective records of coaching sessions has been deemed significant for an ethical coaching practice (EMCC, 2018), research on the ethics of taking notes and keeping records in coaching is practically non-existent.
Because of this lacuna, we have embarked on a research project on the topic, the first stage of which involves engaging with relevant literature in neighbouring disciplines, primarily in the disciplines of psychology and counselling and psychotherapy, trying to understand the ethical issues of record-keeping in the helping professions. Here, we pose some initial reflections on the ethical considerations of record-keeping in coaching.
In the context of the helping professions, record-keeping is the “process of writing records”, for the purpose of organising one’s “thoughts and feelings”, in order to “reflect systematically on what has occurred and plan for future sessions”(Reeves & Bond, 2021, p236). This practice enables “accurate recall of client related information […] in order to provide the best possible care to the clients” (Australian Psychological Society, 2007, p.1).
As in the disciplines of counselling and psychotherapy, the practice of keeping records during coaching sessions has been regarded as “an invaluable resource” for monitoring a client’s development and progress (Skoumpopoulou, 2017). According to the Global Code of Ethics, a multi-stakeholder, wide-ranging initiative by the Association for Coaching (AC) and the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC):
Members will keep, store and dispose of all data and records of their client work including digital files and communications, in a manner that ensures confidentiality, security, and privacy, and complies with all relevant laws and agreements that exist in their client’s country regarding data protection and privacy (EMCC, 2021).
The International Association of Coaching (IAC) also suggests that:
Coaches are recommended to appropriately document their work in order to facilitate provision of services later by them or by other professionals, to ensure accountability, and to meet other legal requirements of their Country (IAC, n.d.).
As such, record-keeping has been established as an “ethical requirement for good practice” (Reeves & Bond, 2021, p. 235) in helping professions, such as coaching. Yet, despite recommendations like those quoted above, due the unregulated nature of coaching, there’s been a lack of clear guidelines for record-keeping. As such, it’s become dependent on the values and ethics of each individual coach or the organisation in which they operate (Afton, 2013; Iordanou, Hawley, & Iordanou, 2017). This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, as coaches trust their instinct and moral compass in order to make ethical decisions (Passmore, 2009).
Nevertheless, consciously reflecting on the positive and negative characteristics of record-keeping might enable one to make informed decisions about the process of writing and maintaining records of coaching sessions.
Indeed, there are several positive and negative arguments for taking notes and keeping records. On the positive side, note-taking provides a recall tool; enables a reflexive practice; offers proof in case of misconduct complaints; helps monitor change and progress; and, overall, contributes towards coach accountability and, by extension, a good quality of service (Reeves & Bond, 2021, p236). On the negative side, the security of records might not always be guaranteed (unauthorised disclosure) and, as a result, trust might be compromised, especially in cases where the client might be vulnerable to legal prosecution or where clients might demand to see records.
Record-keeping is also time-consuming and attention-taking. Finally, steering clear of this practice might enable practitioners to stop worrying about the potential of legal use of documents and focus on the relationship – even though kept records might save practitioners the need for an in-person testimony in court, since a written report based on saved records might suffice (Ibid., p 237).
Aside from these positive and negative characteristics, there are several ethical considerations with regard to record-keeping. First, the coach is ethically responsible for keeping accurate notes that protect the client’s privacy and integrity and that the client has access to any time they request for it. According to the Australian Psychological Society (2007), entries must be factual, respectful, and maintain the client’s confidentiality, especially when sensitive information is involved.
Second, as confidentiality is a key element of ethical record-keeping (Iordanou, Hawley, & Iordanou 2017), the client’s informed consent is paramount. Accordingly, coaches need to consider in advance who might request access to their records (for example, an employer or other authorities such as the police) and inform their clients of such prospects. Practical issues of the secure storage of records are also ethically important, especially if records are kept electronically.
The British Psychological Society has published specific guidelines to help psychologists use, retain, and manage electronic records. Using codes instead of the client’s name or other identifiable information and a password-protected computer to store notes electronically may also protect confidentiality (Reeves & Bond, 2021). If the coaching is conducted in organisational settings, a major ethical consideration relates to the ownership of the coaching records. According to the Australian Psychological Society (2007), the organisation can claim ownership of the record, unless different arrangements are stipulated in the contact. Clear contracting is, thus, of paramount importance in this situation, to ensure that confidentiality is maintained.
A final yet important consideration is about the timing of record-keeping. Should it be done during or after the session? This isn’t merely a practical issue but a relational one, as taking notes during the coaching intervention, while helpful for accuracy purposes, might disrupt the flow of the session, with detrimental consequences for the coaching relationship. It is for this reason that in psychological therapy and counselling it’s generally recommended that notes are taken, as a reflective practice, shortly after the session (see, Australian Psychological Society, 2007; Reeves & Bond, 2021).
While all these practical issues have been considered by scholars and practitioners in other helping professions, we’ve decided to focus the second stage of our research (currently ongoing) on the relational dimension of record-keeping in coaching. As such, we would like to close this article by posing to our readers some questions that we are currently asking and reflecting upon as scholars and practitioners:
- Why am I keeping records?
- What value am I trying to create for the client with my record-keeping?
- What value am I trying to create for myself as a coach with my record-keeping?
- Does the process of keeping records improve or impair my relationship with my clients?
- How do I capture the silences in my records?
About the authors
- Dr Christiana Iordanou is a lecturer in Developmental Psychology and Mental Health at the University of Kent and co-author of Values and Ethics in Coaching (Sage, 2017).
- Dr Ioanna Iordanou is a reader in Human Resource Management (Coaching and Mentoring) at Oxford Brookes Business School, co-author of Values and Ethics in Coaching (Sage, 2017), and co-editor of The Practitioner’s Handbook of Team Coaching (Routledge, 2019).
- Dr Rachel Hawley is a leadership associate at the NHS Leadership Academy and co-author of Values and Ethics in Coaching (Sage, 2017).
- M Afton, The Ethics of Record Keeping in the Business Coaching Milieu, 2013. https://bit.ly/3I2cq55 Accessed: 01 Apr 2022
- Australian Psychological Society, Ethical Notetaking and Record Keeping Guide, 2007. https://bit.ly/3ypRfXD Accessed: 10 Apr 2022
- British Psychological Society, Electronic Records Guidance, 2019.
- European Mentoring and Coaching Council, The Global Code of Ethics for Coaches, Mentors, and Supervisors, 2018.
https://bit.ly/3nlhd8o Accessed: 12 May 2021
- I Iordanou, C Hawley and C Iordanou, Values and Ethics in Coaching, Sage, 2017
- J Passmore, ‘Coaching Ethics: Making ethical decisions – novices and experts’, in Coaching Psychologist, 5(1), pp6-10, 2009
- A Reeves and T Bond, Standards and Ethics for Counselling in Action, Sage, 2021
- D Skoumpopoulou, ‘Understanding Good Practice in Workplace Coaching’ in Frontiers in Management Research, 1(2), pp37-45, 2017