Therapists and Coaching – Is It Ethical?
As a therapist turned coach, I love connecting and working with mental health professionals interested in coaching. And inevitably, the same concern arises during almost every conversation:
What about the ethical issues?
Many providers wonder if it's ethical to maintain a therapy practice while pursuing a coaching business. Other therapists want to know about maintaining their license if they are coaching full-time and not practicing therapy. And everyone has questions about liability and legal issues.
It's understandable – and reassuring! – that clinicians are asking these questions. It demonstrates a deep concern for the professions of mental health and coaching, for their clients, and for themselves.
As with most ethical issues, when it comes to therapists and coaching, there's no single right answer. There are few guidelines for therapists who want to practice coaching, and policies vary state-to-state based on licensing laws.
Even still, there are some best practices that therapists interested in coaching should follow, and I highlight some of them in this post. But please note – I am a therapist and a coach, but I am not an attorney. The following recommendations should not be viewed as legal advice, and I highly advise any therapist interested in coaching to research their state's laws, speak to their state licensing board, and consult with an attorney. Please see my Website Disclaimer for more information.
Best Practice #1: You gotta keep 'em separated
I'm totally dating myself with that 90s-era reference, but it's worth it if it helps even one therapist build a stronger coaching practice. If you are actively practicing as a therapist, you must avoid any overlap between your therapy business and your coaching business. Do not have one business entity that covers both services. “Jane Doe Counseling and Coaching” is not a smart move.
In order to avoid confusion, keep everything separate – separate business entities, separate financial accounts, separate contracts, separate policies, etc. The same applies with marketing – your marketing efforts for your therapy practice should be separate from your coaching business.
Best Practice #2: One license to rule them all
If you hold a license, you are obligated to follow the laws and rules that apply to your profession, regardless of whether you are providing therapy or coaching. This means you are still bound by your state's laws regarding mandated reporting (child abuse, elder abuse, duty to warn, etc.), dual relationships, and so forth.
In your coaching practice, you should have an informed consent policy for your coaching clients. They need to understand that even though they are not receiving mental health services (more on that in a bit), they are receiving services from a licensed provider, which means you are subject to those laws. I recommend going over this verbally during your initial session, as well as having it in writing.
One issue that often comes up is whether it’s ethical for a provider to reference their license when marketing their coaching practice. Generally speaking, you should not be using your mental health license to marketing your coaching practice, but you may reference your degrees. For example, my coaching business cards have Lee Chaix McDonough, MSW, MSPH, PCC on them, but I don't include the LCSW.
That being said, because I’m obligated to follow the rules of my profession, I have an ethical responsibility to make sure my coaching client knows my licensure status. This is a part of my informed consent process, and that starts with full disclosure in my marketing.
Best Practice #3: One or the other – not both
Do not provide both therapy AND coaching services to the same client. If you are seeing a client for therapy, then that's the world they stay in. If they are interested in working with a coach and are a suitable candidate for coaching, consider referring them to a colleague.
If you're providing coaching services to a client and you sense they would benefit from mental health services, then discuss your concerns with them and offer a referral to another provider. Don't try to be all things to all clients.
I recommend having a documented referral policy and making that a part of your informed consent process.
Best Practice #4: Stay in your lane
If you're coaching a client who is seeing another provider for therapy, it's particularly important to not overstep your role as a coach. For example, let's say I'm working with an entrepreneur who wants to grow her online presence in order to build her business, and she's also seeing a therapist about a past trauma. As her coach, my job is to follow her identified agenda – building her business. It's not my role to do any trauma work with her, regardless of whether I'm licensed or trained to do so.
When I'm coaching a client who is also in therapy, I'm clear that the therapeutic treatment plan trumps all. If my client feels that any aspect of our coaching is in conflict with her therapeutic goals, then we stop. There's no room for ego here – the client's mental health is always priority one.
Some clients may opt to sign a release of information, authorizing the coach to speak with their therapist. As a coach, this can help you tailor your services so that they are in alignment with and augment the therapeutic plan. However, this option should always be the client's choice, not a requirement for service. Coaches should never pressure or mandate a client to sign an ROI.
Best Practice #5: Clarity is key
Regardless of whether you are coaching full-time or as an adjunct to a therapy practice, as a licensed provider you must be clear about the services you provide and to whom you provide them. This clarity will not only help you in your marketing, but it will also ensure your clients understand what services they are receiving and in what context.
This is particularly important if the coaching you provide is adjacent to mental health concerns. For example, perhaps you're a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, and you also want to coach women around body positivity and self-esteem. It's likely that issues surrounding health, food, and emotional eating might surface during coaching. What makes coaching around these issues different from therapy for eating disorders? At what point does this client become more appropriate for therapy than coaching?
Best Practice #6: Say It, Write It, and Say It Again
Informed consent is the key to avoiding ethical issues. When providing coaching services as a licensed provider, you need to be clear on the following things:
- Although you are a licensed provider, you are not providing therapy, mental health services, or health care services;
- Although you are not providing mental health services, you are still obligated to follow the laws and rules of your state licensing board;
- Although you will honor the client's confidentiality to the extent allowed by law, coaching clients may not be afforded the same legal rights to confidentiality as therapy clients.
I discuss these issues with my client during the first session, I include them in my coaching contract, and I reiterate them as appropriate.
Speaking of contracts… I think it's particularly important that licensed professionals have solid coaching contracts and website disclaimers that are clear about the services you are (and are not) providing. That's why we include an attorney-prepared contract template inside the Coach with Clarity Collective!
With hundreds of trainings, templates, guides, and resources, the Collective includes everything you need to build, grow, and scale your coaching practice. Click here to learn more!