Ethics in Coaching

perspectiveFacing an ethical challenge in one of my subcontracting assignments, this lead me to further exploration of the ICF (International Coach Federation) code of ethics and its concepts and principals with colleagues of mine in the profession and outside of the profession who often had strong viewpoints that contradicted my own.

The situation was a friend and my boss has used an online software to collect data from our coaching sessions for purposes of billing and gathering themes from the coaching so that she may present data back to the client.  In addition, she has tried to have us put our coaching notes from the sessions up in two different pieces of software.  On a call a few months ago she asked the group if they would be willing to use the new software to put their notes on it – thus giving a way to find information more quickly and standardize the process for all the coaches.   A number of coaches on that call agreed to do so.  I subsequently called my friend and told her that I wouldn’t be willing to do that.  Her response was that she wasn’t going to read it.  I persisted in saying that I would not put my notes there.  It should be noted that my boss is not an ICF certified coach although many of the coaches on her team are ICF certified.

After perusing the ICF code of ethics for this class while thinking of this situation, it lead me to many questions.  The most pertinent clause for this situation is this one:

11) Maintain, store and dispose of any records, including electronic files and communications, created during my coaching engagements in a manner that promotes confidentiality, security and privacy and complies with any applicable laws and agreements.”

To be fair to my boss, while my instinct is that this request does not promote ‘confidentiality, security and privacy’ I don’t actually know what she has proposed to her clients and what is involved in their agreements.  If they have agreed to this and it violates no laws, one would assume that the issue would be complete.  If my boss is not looking at the notes, would they still be considered secure and confidential?  Or is the mere fact that she has access to them a violation?  I also do not know if any of the other coaches complied by putting their notes on the site even though they said they did.

The next items that appear to be most pertinent are these:

2) Commit to take the appropriate action with the coach, trainer, or coach mentor and/or will contact ICF to address any ethics violation or possible breach as soon as I become aware, whether it involves me or others.

3) Communicate and create awareness in others, including organizations, employees, sponsors, coaches and others, who might need to be informed of the responsibilities established by this Code.”

The challenge in the way the code is written is that the list structure implies that you are supposed to do all of these things, and some might say in the order in which they are written.  Am I supposed to contact the ICF regarding this apparent violation before I contact my boss?  And only after I do that contact my fellow coaches?

There is also no conditionality included in the content.  Should I contact the ICF even if I have contacted my boss and the other coaches and they have been made aware?  Should I contact ICF if I have contacted them and they have corrected the problem?  After digging a bit deeper the solution becomes less and less clear.  However, I have made a decision as to how to proceed.  I will contact my boss first, as that is more appropriate than contacting her employees (my fellow coaches).  After being made aware of the situation and letting her know the code that I am required to abide by, I will see if she wants to tell the other coaches or if she would like me to do that.  Depending on how she decides to resolve the situation will determine whether or not I contact the ICF.

Initially, I thought this was a cut and dry situation.  After peeling back layers of the onion, I see that regarding ethics there are many layers and many shades of grey depending on whom you ask.  I’d love to hear your thoughts…feel free to send a message to info (at) with your thoughts.


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About Shannon Polly, MAPP

Shannon M. Polly is a corporate communications trainer, facilitator and speaker and founder of Shannon Polly & Associates, a leadership development company in downtown D.C. Shannon works with executives, managers and employees of Fortune 500 companies in two areas: executive presence/presentation skills (based on over a decade of experience as a professional actor/singer in New York) and positive psychology. Shannon is one the first 100 people in the world who have received her Master in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) degree from the University of Pennsylvania under Dr. Martin Seligman. She also holds a graduate degree from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in classical acting and a B.A. with honors from Yale University. She also holds a coaching certificate from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program.

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