Press release: Poor Practice 2010 survey

In recent months, a handful of large UK organisations have raised concerns about what they consider to be poor, unethical or even downright dangerous practice. But how, if at all, should they respond?

Coaching is increasingly viewed as a profession in the UK – with all the expectations that come with this. More and more people are setting themselves up as coaches. The trouble is, those who do not have adequate training, CPD or supervision are bringing the profession into disrepute.

Most are probably well-intentioned. But how can we capitalise on this good intent and raise the bar without being all ‘Big Brother’ about it, and without attracting the attentions of the government?

Or is the latter what we want? Yet if the experiences of sister helping professions regulated via the Health Professions Council (HPC) are anything to go by, this is not to be undertaken lightly. It could well turn out to be a veritable minefield.

Many burning questions have been asked:

  • What exactly constitutes incompetent, poor, unethical or dangerous practice? Are we in agreement or, more likely, is there a range of subjective perceptions?
  • Should we be attempting to reach agreement across the professional bodies about what we deem to be best (and otherwise) practice?
  • What incompetent, unethical or poor practices have coaches or assessors encountered anyway?
  • Presuming there to be no all or nothing spectrum of what’s acceptable and unacceptable, what sorts of shades of grey should we be thinking about and what are the exceptions?
  • And when we do encounter less than ideal practice, what do we do about it, if anything? Should there be a range of options that come into play depending on the “severity” of behaviour or is this all too Big Brother for us?
  • Should we turn to the individual professional bodies to deal with complaints, seek cross-body collaboration, or use a government body such as the HPC?
  • By sticking our heads above the parapet, are we increasing the likelihood of the government stepping in and requiring coaches to be registered with the HPC?

Against such a backdrop, and to get a sense of what you, as coaching providers, think, Coaching at Work has joined forces with the Association for Coaching, the British Psychological Society’s Special Group in Coaching Psychology, the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, the International Coach Federation and the Society for Coaching Psychology.

We will be sharing the results of the survey in two parts over two issues. This first part looks at what you think constitutes incompetent, poor and unethical practice, and explores the extent to which you’re encountering it.

What you say

Ninety five per cent of you think sexual intimacy with a client is “unethical” although 3 per cent of you have encountered it. Some 91 per cent of you think developing an inappropriately personal relationship with clients is unethical; 12 per cent of you have encountered it.

Some of you query how “inappropriate” is defined: “If it means becoming friends and seeing each other socially outside of the coaching, it’s perfectly acceptable so long as it doesn’t compromise the coaching”; “While I do not coach friends and family, for example, many coaches do, and I do not see this as a problem if the boundaries are clear.”

The question of whether it’s acceptable to become intimate after the coaching has finished also arises: “If the coaching relationship ceases when an intimate relationship starts, that’s not unethical.”

Ninety one per cent of you think breaking client confidentiality is unethical; 25 per cent of you have come across this. However, as many of you stressed, this is not a “black and white” issue.

One respondent says: “However occasional, people can and do disclose things that require the helping professional to take further action, otherwise they may be failing in their duty of care to their client, the general public and possibly acting outside the law.”

These would include, according to another respondent, child protection, or risk of harm to self or others.

Some 93 per cent of you think misleading people about your credentials or a professional body is unethical.

Making clients dependent on coaching was deemed to be “unethical” by 67 per cent of respondents, “poor practice” by 51 per cent and “incompetent” by 29 per cent of the 529 respondents (bearing in mind respondents could choose more than one category).

What you’ve encountered

Presented with a list of practices and behaviours, the two most commonly encountered are “leading the client” (63 per cent) and not evaluating (59 per cent). Others encountered by many of you include the coach talking for the majority of the session (50 per cent), concentrating on problems (49 per cent), not reviewing/gathering feedback from the client (49 per cent), not contracting at the outset or along the way (48 per cent), and not taking into account “the wider system” – 41 per cent of you.

Twenty-six per cent of you have encountered coaches “making the client dependent on the coach”, while 20 per cent of you have come across coaches encouraging dependency on coaching in general.

One respondent comments: “We see most of these problems in coach assessment centres, and these are mainly accredited coaches. So the problem must be even more widespread among coaches in general!”

There were many other practices and behaviours you put forward, including not being aware of or managing boundaries well, the coach bringing their own issues or agenda to the coaching, and a lack of self-knowledge and awareness in the coach.

One respondent says that occasionally, they have “come across coaching that is quite dangerous, simply because the coach was working beyond their competence or because they were un-usefully attracted to the notion of helping the distressed”.


One thorny issue is whether it is acceptable to practise therapy while wearing a coach’s hat. A number of you query how we define therapy in this survey. Some 61 per cent deem practising it “unethical”, 49 per cent “poor practice”, 12 per cent “incompetent” and 9 per cent “acceptable” (respondents choosing more than one category).

Many of you felt this was a fuzzy area and one which depended on what contracting took place, on whether the coach switched back and forth between coaching and therapy, on the specific circumstances, on the definition of therapy, and so on.

A number of you believe that as long as the “hat-change” is made obvious, with clear contracting and client permission, the practice of therapy is not unethical.

One respondent argues that it is good ethical practice if a coach/therapist, with permission, breaks the coaching relationship for a while so that therapy can be undertaken. Assuming, of course, that it is agreed by the client and all appropriate discussions around the change of relationship have happened.

“It is unethical and poor practice if the coach just flip-flops between the two without mutual agreement between coach and client.”

Another says: “As a qualified counsellor and coach, I do not believe there is as much difference between coaching and therapy as some would like to make out. Coaching is therapeutic. Many counselling approaches emphasise solutions/goal setting and the client as expert.”

This respondent says that whether some of the situations listed are poor practice/unethical or not depends on the coach’s levels of competence, skill and expertise both within and outside coaching and on what has been contracted (both upfront and ongoing) with the client and sponsor.

Another says: “If a therapist is coaching, and she and the client agree that she can sometimes take off her coaching hat and do therapy, I do not see an issue of ethics or incompetence.”

This same respondent gives another example: “If a client who has fought alcoholism or drug abuse in the past now wants to work with a coach, I do not see a problem, as long as the coach recommends a therapist or other intervention when appropriate.”

Neither do they and a number of other respondents see it a problem if a coach switches to some consultancy, as long as they make the hat-change clear.

Neither is it clear-cut when it comes to working in areas or with clients traditionally associated with therapy. Twenty two per cent had come across coaches working with someone who is mentally unwell, while 18 per cent had encountered coaches working with “deep-rooted psychological issues” such as sexual abuse. And many of you defend the right to do so. Many others comment that it very much depends on the circumstances, a point made about other issues under the spotlight in the survey.

  • In the next issue of Coaching at Work, we will look at what, if anything, you think should be done about incompetent, poor and unethical practice.

The Poor Practice 2010 survey

Some 529 coaches responded to the Poor Practice 2010 survey carried out between April and June 2010.

Many of you welcomed its timeliness and the collaboration between Coaching at Work and the professional bodies. Some of you feared a pre-agenda – pushing the case for government regulation or more power for professional bodies, for example. However, the survey was initiated by Coaching at Work.

Others of you would have liked a debate beforehand about some of the definitions used including “unacceptable”, “therapy”, “inappropriate”. A few of you suggested carrying out another survey on best coaching practices.

Many of you felt that there are no clear-cut situations, that it is hard to categorically say a behaviour or practice is unethical as it would depend very much on the circumstances.

You’ve also encountered coaches:

  • Misrepresenting professional bodies or one’s credentials
  • Acting as consultant within coaching
  • Not understanding tripartite contracting
  • Not understanding conflicts of interest and what to do about them
  • Lacking awareness of boundaries and how to manage and hold them appropriately
  • Lacking self knowledge and awareness
  • Practising despite needing therapy
  • Making grandiose claims for coaching
  • Offering poor advice
  • Bullying or harassing clients
  • Dominating conversations with own issues
  • Coaching children without criminal record checks or appropriate training
  • Seeking referrals when client is vulnerable or during “halo effect” of coaching
  • Not advising client to get appropriate professional support
  • Not keeping client files according to Data Protection Act guidelines
  • Coaching despite insufficient training
  • Using “wishy-washy psychobabble approaches” they’ve made up
  • Frequently referring to own examples
  • Dismissing client issues (depression), advising them to get anti-depressants while working on coaching
  • Using “high pressure sales tactics to get client to commit to 12-18 month contracts upfront”

Coaching at Work, Volume 5, Issue 4

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