Episode 85: What Does “Ethical” Mean in Coaching?

The topic of ethics is critical not only in the context of the coaching profession but in business in general. When you define your own ethical standards, you’re really looking at how your values are brought to life through your actions. From there, it becomes much easier to talk about them in the context of coaching and with your clients and it makes it much easier to attract right-fit clients into your business.

85: What Does "Ethical" Mean in Coaching?

There's no more important topic for coaches and business owners than ethics. Our ethical code provides us with guidelines for how we engage with clients, colleagues, and everyone with whom we are establishing a relationship. Sadly, there are tons of examples out there of questionable, if not downright unethical, business practices.

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Show Notes

There’s no more important topic for coaches and business owners than ethics.

Our ethical code provides us with guidelines for how we engage with clients, colleagues, and everyone with whom we are establishing a relationship.

Sadly, there are tons of examples out there of questionable, if not downright unethical, business practices. That's why today we’re exploring what ethics are, what it means to be an ethical coach, and key considerations to keep in mind whenever we’re engaging with others in our coaching business.

Topics covered

  • How the International Coaching Federation (ICF) supports coaches when it comes to ethics
  • Acknowledging that ethics is not a black and white subject
  • Getting clear on what we mean when we talk about ethics
  • Connecting ethics with our core values
  • What it means to practice ethical behavior
  • Why self-awareness is critical
  • Understanding your responsibility to professionalism
  • The distinction between legal and ethical
  • Doing good versus avoiding bad
  • Breaking down the ICF Core Competencies

Resources mentioned

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Well hello, my friend. Welcome to the Coach with Clarity Podcast. My name is Lee Chaix McDonough, and I am so excited to have you here with me today as we dive into a very important topic in the coaching profession and really not just the online business space, but in business in general. Today, we are going to talk about business ethics. When it comes to being a coach and a business owner, I don't think there's a more critical topic for us to be discussing than ethics, because ethics really provides us with some guidance around how to engage with potential clients, current clients, former clients, colleagues, really anyone with whom we are establishing a relationship. And the sad truth is that there are plenty of online business owners and coaches who are employing some less than ethical tactics in their business model. Sadly, there are tons of examples out there of what I consider to be questionable, if not downright unethical business practices. And so, that's why today I want to spend just a little bit of time exploring what ethics are, what it means to be an ethical coach, and some key considerations that we should be keeping in mind whenever we are engaging with other people in the context of our coaching business. 

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Now, I can assure you that today's podcast episode is not about blaming or shaming anyone, I am not interested in calling out specific people or companies. That's not what we're doing today. Instead, I want to start by really defining what ethical behavior is. And then I want to highlight what the International Coaching Federation, or ICF, has to say about ethics and coaching. As someone who is an ICF Credentialed Coach, and who runs an ICF accredited Certification Program and Continuing Education Program, I take this very seriously. And I'm so grateful that ICF does have a robust approach to coaching ethics. Not only do they have a comprehensive Code of Ethics, which you can find online, and we'll have links to that in the show notes. They also have an ethical review process for coaches who are ICF members. And they're able to provide guidance to ICF members who have ethical questions or who are facing an ethical dilemma. So I'm really grateful to ICF for that. And so that's why I want to reference their core competencies and their Code of Ethics as we discuss coaching ethics during today's podcast episode. Now, I remember learning about ethics in some of my undergraduate psychology courses, even in my social work graduate program. And I'm not gonna lie, sometimes talking about ethics can either be really dry and boring, or it can be presented as absolutes. You know, the “thou shalt nots” of the profession, or “thou musts” of the profession. And honestly, when we are talking about ethics, we have to start off by acknowledging that there are gray areas and there will continue to be gray areas. Sometimes there is no one clear or easy answer. And that's why we seek mentoring, supervision, consultation, and support when we are facing our own ethical dilemmas. Because if it hasn't happened to you yet, in your coaching practice, it will. That's why it's so important to know your limits and to seek mentorship and consultation. It's one of the reasons why I became a registered mentor coach with ICF. And it's also why I take very seriously my responsibility to provide mentor coaching to my Certification Program students and to some of my private clients. So if you are in need of mentor coaching and you'd like to explore that in greater depth, feel free to drop me a line at info@CoachwithClarity.com and we can explore next steps for you. Okay, so let's start off with making sure we have a clear definition of what ethics means. And y'all know me, I am a dictionary girl. So I went straight to the Oxford Dictionary to look up their definition of ethics. And it reads “moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity”. So to break that down, essentially, we are talking about a person's beliefs, thoughts, opinions, and how they influence behavior. Or how they do something whether in their business, in their relationships or in their lives that reflect those thoughts and beliefs. I felt like that was a good start. But I wanted to go a little deeper. So I continued to do some research online. And I came across the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. And they have a really fantastic article, we'll link to it in the show notes, about what ethics is. And essentially, they boil it down to two things. And I'm going to quote from the article here. First, ethics “refers to the well founded standards of right and wrong, that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues”. Secondly, ethics “refers to the study and development of one's ethical standards”, I thought that was a pretty concise definition of what ethics is, are, I'm never really sure whether it's singular or plural, so bear with me if I go between the two. But I really liked this description, because it talks about what humans ought to do or what we should do. Now, as a coach, I'll be honest with you, I tend to cringe every time I hear the word should, because oftentimes, that's language that we use to try to force ourselves into doing something. Like, “I really should be doing this, I should be spending more time connecting with my clients, I should be putting myself out there more and making new connections”. And you've probably heard the saying, “quit shoulding on yourself”. And as a coach, that resonates with me. As a human being, that resonates with me. And yet, when we're talking about ethics, it's almost impossible not to talk about what we “should” be doing. Because we are talking about larger principles here. We're talking about, again, to quote the article, “well founded standards of right and wrong that inform what we should be doing in order to take care of ourselves, and others, and society as a whole”. Part of the reason I really liked this definition is because it didn't use the word morals or morality, the way the Oxford Dictionary definition does. And it's not that I have a problem with morals or morality. But oftentimes when we talk about moral behavior, we very quickly deviate into religious beliefs or religious systems. And I want to be clear that while ethics and ethical behavior is certainly a part of many religious institutions, I don't want to conflate the two. And sometimes when we talk about morality that has a tendency to happen. So I really appreciate the Santa Clara University's approach to this because they aren't explicitly talking about morality. Instead, they're talking about these well founded standards, so concepts that we as a collective have agreed on in terms of what is right and what is wrong. And then, of course, the second part of their definition talks about ethics as the actual study and development of your own ethical standards. And that suggests that ethics is not a static concept. It's not that we can decide something is ethical, or it's not ethical, and that's it case closed, we're not talking about it anymore. No, ethics is going to evolve as we evolve as a society, as we evolve as human beings and our understanding deepens, and we mature. Our ethical framework may evolve as well. And so I really appreciate that this article approaches ethics as something that is dynamic, it is fluid, and it will change. So with that in mind, let's talk about ethics as it specifically affects the coaching profession. And as I mentioned before, I went straight to the International Coaching Federation's Code of Ethics, as well as to their Core Competencies, because their first core competency is “demonstrates ethical practice”. And so what that means is that coaches are expected to understand and consistently apply coaching ethics and standards of coaching across the board. And so we'll talk a little bit about what that core competency looks like in action. And we'll also highlight the main sections of the ICF Code of Ethics. What I find kind of amusing, however, is that there is a section in the Code of Ethics where they define key terms. And the term ethics is not defined. I found that just kind of humorous that we're going to talk about ethics, and yet we're not really defining what ethics are. So I think it's important that we have that base knowledge and that we come to an understanding around what ethics are, and then we can talk about how they affect the coaching profession, and coaches specifically. Now within the Code of Ethics, they state that the entire document is based on the ICF Core Values. And their four Core Values are professionalism, collaboration, humanity, and equity. So when they talk about professionalism, they are talking about establishing and maintaining a coaching mindset and professional quality that encompasses responsibility, respect, integrity, competence, and excellence. And those are certainly terms and concepts that we see throughout the Code of Ethics. Collaboration is another core value for ICF. And that's very much about developing social connection and about community building. I think that connects to the third core value of humanity as well, which really is about being humane, kind, compassionate, and respectful towards others, which then leads into the fourth core value of equity. And that's a commitment to using a coaching mindset to explore and understand the needs of others so that we can practice equitable processes at all times, to create equality for all. Now, this is taken directly from ICF’s webpage about Core Values, we'll make sure that there's a link to that in the show notes as well. But I do think that when we are talking about a Code of Ethics, we need to think about those generally agreed on standards. And in this case, those standards are very clearly defined by these values. Within the Code of Ethics, there are four main sections of ethical standards. So the first section is one's responsibility to their clients. And here we find very clear expectations that govern behavior between coaches and clients. And I want to clarify that we're using the term “client” fairly broadly here, at least from my perspective. We're not simply talking about someone who has already paid and is on our roster. I also view it as a potential client, someone with whom I may not yet have a formal business relationship, but that possibility is there. I include anyone that comes into the sphere of my business. So in many cases, I'm including you, as a podcast listener in my definition of being a client, because I want to make sure that my behavior with you is also of the highest ethical standards. So I take a very broad view when defining client. And of course, there are times where we may also need to be clear about our standards with other parties, such as sponsors. So when we talk about sponsors, we are talking about the people or the organizations or the agencies that are paying for the coaching, there may be times where your client is an individual or group. But that person or that group of people are not the ones actually paying for the coaching, maybe it's being paid for by a company, maybe it's being paid for by a parent. And so we need to be really clear around our obligations to the client and to the sponsor, and what ethical behavior looks like in that situation. So that first section really explores what those generally accepted guidelines of behavior are, when dealing with clients and sponsors and other business contacts. Section two looks at our responsibility to the coaching practice and performance.
In my mind, section one is all about interpersonal relationships. So it's how we behave with others. Section two is all about intra-personal relationships. It's how we engage with ourselves. And there are very clear standards listed here. For example, we agree to follow the ICF Code of Ethics. We know what the processes are if we become aware of a possible breach of the code, whether we are the one breaching the code, or whether a colleague is. We are agreeing to continue our personal professional and ethical development, because we understand that part of being an ethical coach is ensuring that we are up to date on best practices in the coaching industry. And then we also need to have a level of self awareness so that we know where our limits are. We know if we are not the best coach for a particular client, or if there are any sort of limitations or circumstances that could create an obstacle to our own coaching performance, or with professional coaching relationships, again, with clients, with sponsors, with, colleagues and the like. That level of self awareness is key because ultimately it is our responsibility to ask for help, to seek support, and to seek guidance, whether through mentorship, consultation or supervision.That is our responsibility as coaches and that's what we are committing to do. So section one is about our relationships with other people. And Section two is about our relationships with ourselves. Section three, I would say is about our relationship to coaching as a whole. Section three is defined as responsibility to professionalism. And so this is essentially saying, “Yes, I take the profession of coaching seriously”. I will be honest, when it comes to describing my competency, and expertise, and experience in coaching, I will only communicate true and accurate statements about what I offer as a coach, and what is possible. I'm not going to make any sort of fraudulent claims or statements. So I'll be honest with you, this, I think, is the shortest section of the four in the Code of Ethics. And it's one that I personally wish went into a little more detail. Because as I alluded to, at the top of the episode, there are people out there who identify themselves as coaches, and who are engaging in some business practices that don't necessarily accurately reflect their competency, expertise, or experience. They're making really bold claims about what they as a coach can do for you as a client. Oftentimes, we see this linked to revenue, “become a six figure coach”, “run a seven figure business”. And anytime we're making any sort of revenue claims, we want to be really careful about what we're actually promising. That's why a lot of times on those websites or on those emails, at the very bottom, in four point font, you will see a disclaimer, that basically says any revenue claims are not guarantees. And in fact, they may be on the high end, or these are examples of atypical results. And that's essentially legalese to ensure that if you invest with them, or in their program, and you don't see those results, you're not making six figures or seven figures, or I can't even believe it, but I have seen eight figure business claims out there as well. Well, if you don't hit that, that little statement protects them from liability. Now, that may be legal. But it's fair to say that just because something is legal, doesn't make it ethical. Legal and ethical are two very different things. And in business, and especially in this online business space, and in coaching, sometimes we confuse legal for ethical. And we do something that may be legal, like making those claims but having a disclaimer, but that may not make it ethical. Now, I'm not saying that it's never appropriate to share a revenue related statistic in support of your business. And certainly, if you can back up your claim with multiple examples of clients who have achieved this, and you've achieved it yourself, then, you know, it's fair to say this may be possible for you too. But again, when we're communicating with clients, we need to be really clear about expectations, boundaries, and what the client will have to contribute in order to receive those results. This is an area that I wish the ICF Code of Ethics addressed even more deeply and more strongly. And who knows, maybe in the years to come, they will, especially as we see more of this happening in the coaching space. Okay, I'm going to hop off my soapbox now and talk a little bit about the fourth and final standard in the ICF Code of Ethics, which is our greater responsibility to society. And here's where we're talking about general good human behavior, avoiding discrimination, maintaining fairness and equality, understanding that someone else's intellectual property belongs to them. And so we're not going to take it, we're not going to steal it, we're not going to pass it off as our own. And we're going to ensure that our practices are consistent with recognized, evidence-based approaches. This section closes with a standard that I think is such a beautiful summary of what it means to be an ethical coach, and really an ethical behavior. And that final standard reads, “I am aware of my and my clients impact on society, I adhere to the philosophy of doing good versus avoiding bad”.
Every time I read that, I just think, “Wow, that is exactly what being an ethical coach and an ethical person is all about”. We aim to do good for others and for the world, versus avoiding bad or trying to make sure that we're not going to get caught, or that we're not going to do something wrong. If more people focused on doing good versus avoiding bad, oh my goodness, can you imagine the kind of world we could create? I just think that's a lovely way to wrap up the ethical standards section of this Code of Ethics. And I hoped that briefly going through each of the four sections and highlighting some of the standards has helped make clear what it looks like to be an ethical coach and what is expected of us. This gets even more specific in the very first Core Competency that ICF shares, which is all about demonstrating ethical practice. And again, the definition of that is, “that we understand and consistently apply coaching ethics and standards of coaching”. And how do we do that? Well, we do that by demonstrating our own integrity and our honesty through our interactions basically with everyone. The Core Competency lists clients, sponsors, and relative stakeholders. But I would say that's our duty with anyone we come into contact with: potential clients, current clients, former clients, sponsors, stakeholders, colleagues. Anyone that we are engaging with within our business deserves that same level of integrity and honesty. One way we do that is by maintaining confidentiality to the fullest extent we are allowed to by law. And I think it's also very important that as a coach of integrity, we are clear with our clients what they can expect in terms of confidentiality, and what they can't. Some clients get a little confused. And they think that a coaching relationship is similar to a relationship they have with their physician, or with their therapist. And they think that they have what you've probably heard of as “doctor-patient privilege”, but they don't have that with coaches. That's why it's so important in your written coaching agreement that it's clear about where your limits of privacy and confidentiality end. And that's also something we want to reiterate during the first session. This is one way we are able to clearly differentiate the coaching profession from other helping professions like therapy, so that our clients really understand what they are receiving from us. And if they need or want something else, we have the ethical responsibility to refer them to other support professionals, as appropriate. And that is explicitly stated in the Core Competencies. The other element that the Core competency addresses directly is the fact that we as coaches have an obligation to be sensitive to our client's identity, environment, experiences, values, and beliefs. That's a direct quote from the Competency. To me, this is really kind of ICF’s nod towards being inclusive, being equitable, and respecting the importance of diversity. So this is their DEI statement. Again, I think we could go deeper with this, I wish we would. But it's a start. And it's followed by talking about the importance of using language that's appropriate and respectful to all parties involved. It probably won't surprise you to hear me say that I think we could go further with this. I think it's more than simply being sensitive to our client's identity, or experience, or cultural values. Rather than being sensitive, in this case, maybe we need to be informed. I believe we do have an obligation to familiarize ourselves, to the extent possible, with the cultural values and experiences that our clients hold, while acknowledging that our client is a unique individual with their own lived experiences. And so they do not represent an entire community. They do not speak for an entire community. And we can't assume that just because they hold a certain identity, that they necessarily have those values or those cultural beliefs. This is why it is so important to really build a strong relationship anchored in trust and mutual respect with our clients. So from there, we can bring in a sense of curiosity about our clients experience. And to the extent that they are comfortable sharing that with us, we receive that as a gift. Anytime a client shares a part of their story or their heritage with us, it is an honor, it is a gift and we must treat it as such. This goes beyond mere cultural sensitivity. And it really does require some nuanced thinking here, because we want to acknowledge and respect a client's identity without making assumptions about them. As coaches, we have to be willing to learn. We have to be willing to make mistakes, to learn from them, to apologize to make amends and to grow from that experience. And when we model that behavior, not just to our clients, but throughout our business and to society at large, by modeling that we encourage it and others. And that I think falls under that responsibility to society that we coaches have. 
Well, my goodness, that was quite a deep dive into coaching ethics, wasn't it? We talked about what ethics are, what it means to practice ethical behavior. We looked at it from the perspective of coaching ethics, and we use the ICF Code of Ethics and Core Competencies to really define the scope of ethical behavior. That was a lot. So this feels like a great time for this week's Clarity in Action moment. For this week's Clarity in Action moment, well, it's a bit of a two parter. You may remember when we started talking about the ICF Code of Ethics, I referenced ICF’s Core Values as being the basis for the ethical standards. I believe the same can be said for our own personal Code of Ethics, we first need to anchor them in our values. So the first task for this week's Clarity in Action moment is to revisit your personal core values. Now if you need some help with that, I definitely recommend checking out Episode 78 of the podcast. That's where we talk about meaning as one of the Three M's, and we talk about how it relates to core values, and even goes past it. But if you need some help with identifying or clarifying your values, I think you'll find episode 78 to be a helpful resource. You can go to CoachwithClarity.com/78, that's the number “78”, to listen to the episode or to stream it right there. You can also find a deep dive on values in my book, “ACT On Your Business”. And you can pick up your copy by heading to CoachwithClarity.com/getthebook. So that's step number one, is to make sure you're really clear on what your core values are. Because that informs Step number two, which is getting really clear on your personal Code of Ethics. What are your ethical standards? What behaviors do you want to engage in that reflect your core values and indicate that you are living and working according to a Code of Ethics? Again, the ICF Code of Ethics is a fantastic place to start for inspiration. But you don't have to stop there. And in fact, although we're talking about this in the context of coaching, I invite you to think about your personal Code of Ethics as being something more broadly reaching than simply how you show up as a coach. It can define how you show up as a partner, a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend, a coworker. How do you want to live your life? When you define your own ethical standards, we're really looking at how your values are brought to life through your actions. And when you are clear on your core values and your personal ethical standards, it becomes much easier to talk about them in the context of coaching and with your clients. And it will help ensure that you are attracting the right fit clients into your business. So that's your Clarity in Action moment for this week. Part one is to review your core values, and part two is to come up with your own set of ethical standards that are essentially your core values in action. And if you are so inclined, I would be honored to know more about your personal Code of Ethics. Please feel free to reach out to me on Instagram @CoachwithClarity, or via email at info@CoachwithClarity.com and let me know what your key takeaway was from this episode and how it's influencing your personal Code of Ethics. Well, my friend, we did it. That is another show in the books, and I will be right back in your podcast feed next week with another new episode. So until then, my name is Lee Chaix McDonough, reminding you to get out there and show the world what it means to be a Coach with Clarity. 

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