Five ethical frameworks for coaches

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Written by Andrew Gibbons on 25 January 2018

As long as I have been in the learning business, I have been concerned about doing things the ‘right’ way, never more so than in my coaching work. I looked up the (Oxford) dictionary definition of ethics before I wrote this: 'Moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity'.

Thus ethics, and ethical behaviour in coaching was worth a search, and a brief review of the literature gleaned a source, (cited at the end of this blog) summarising five frameworks I now share with my fellow
coaches. The first is from the British Psychological Society, and lists four key issues:

  • Reputation
  • Competence
  • Responsibility
  • Integrity

Concise and clear, I like this list, as it provides a strong basis to benchmark professional activity. Who could challenge any of the four elements of the ethical code? The American Psychological Association has a similar list, with rather more complex wording:

  • Beneficence and non-maleficence
  • Fidelity and responsibility
  • Integrity
  • Justice
  • Respect for people’s rights and dignity

More broadly based, and perhaps ambitious than the BPS list, this adds to the range of ethical behaviours, seeking coaches that do no harm; that establish relationships of trust; are fair, and that protect confidentiality.

The European Mentoring and Coaching Council are an authoritative body that also makes explicit its ethical expectations of member coaches in that it sets them seven guiding principles:

  • Reputation
  • Continuous competence enhancement
  • Client centred
  • Confidentiality and standards
  • Law and diversity
  • Boundary management
  • Personal pledge

Some recurring issues here, and new thoughts too, for instance emphasising the need to actively manage professional development; to work with clients as unique individuals; recognise their own parameters of
competence as a coach, and to avoid conflicts of interest.

Rawson in 2001 offered coaches a three part classification of ethical approaches:

  • Consequentialist
  • Deontolgical
  • Pluralist

The first of these is described as where the end justifies the means, for instance when the coach judges that short term deliberate client discomfort can be justified in the context of an anticipated longer term
anticipated positive outcome. Rules and norms are seen as flexible and can be challenged.

The second is a polar model, where for instance actions are either good or bad, right or wrong – with little or no room for interpretation or flexibility.

The third approach is a balance of the first two, providing coach and client with a collaborative path, and after consideration of many options making decisions that on balance, develops new perspectives having
explored the pros and cons of the two other approaches.

Passmore and Mortimer, authors of the source document referred to above suggest there are five sources of ethical dilemmas for a coach:

  • Issues with the Coachee
  • Issues with the Coach
  • Boundary issues
  • Issues stemming from multiple dyadic relationships
  • Multiple sources

Further additions to the ethical mix here. There is vast scope for ‘issues’ generated by both principle parties, or as I have experienced from a third party, such as paying client; The penultimate dilemma could occur when a coach is ‘too’ busy, preventing focus on the specifics and demands of a particular relationship, or when needing to appease or disappoint multiple stakeholders.

Multiple sources accepts that these dilemmas are not mutually exclusive, that often issues are the result of a combination of these impacting on the coach and the coaching activity.

I have found this brief excursion into ethics in coaching of real interest, and will explore this further. It has given me plenty of thoughts on specific actions and expectations to develop my own practice, and to [more] explicitly consider ethical issues and associated matters.

The main source can be found at the coaching section of my website and this provides more explanation and detailed analysis than I have room for in this brief blog.


About the author

Andrew Gibbons has been an independent management developer for the past 25 years. He can be contacted on


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