We often regard confidentiality as a virtue of loyalty but what does it really entail when it comes to coaching?
Coaching always thrives in a ‘safe’ environment, and where there’s an intimate relationship between the coach and the client. A certain level of trust is a non-negotiable requirement for any kind of coaching to work. Without it, a coaching engagement could become something of a crapshoot, and the coach might not really know how to help the client achieve their goals.
Confidentiality in coaching refers to your duty as a coach to not disclose any information shared over the course of the coaching engagement without the express or written permission of the client. The right to confidentiality belongs to your client and not you as the coach and that they get to determine the boundaries. However, as the coach, you have an obligation to ensure that the set limits and boundaries are clearly agreed in writing at the start of the engagement.
There’s a widespread belief that everything in coaching is completely confidential. This is not true because even a court may compel a coach to disclose about a client or even share the details of their session. A coach also has a legal obligation to disclose information about a client to a third party in certain circumstances, such as when the client engages in illegal behavior or when they are a danger to themselves or a third party or even national security.
Confidentiality is perhaps the most tricky of all the ethical standards in coaching. No matter how they are finally determined, the stressful impact of complaints on breach of confidentiality can have damaging effects on the reputation of the coach, including his livelihood.
In today’s increasingly litigious environment, confidentiality is a sensitive issue in the coaching industry and just one incident involving a breach of confidentiality may have far-reaching effects on a coach’s entire practice.
Organizations such as the ICF that oversee and certify coaches all over the world occasionally receive complaints from clients. A good number of those complaints touch on privacy and confidentiality breaches. But sometimes, situational conflicts may arise during the engagement which may be a little complex and which may create ethical dilemmas. Even ethics can have grey areas which can be open for interpretations.
Ethics dictate that there has to be some kind of agreement on what will remain confidential and what will not. But this does not necessarily mean that you sign a confidentiality agreement that is set in stone. A coach can begin with a simple conversation that outlines what information stays between the two of you and more importantly, what kind of things you will be sharing between yourselves.
This applies to executive coaching as well or when you work with an organization. Here is a general rule you can apply: if you are working with an individual, everything between you two remains confidential, and if you are working with an organization to coach their employees, everything between you and the employee is confidential. However, discussions of illegal, criminal or unethical behavior should not be subject to the confidentiality agreement.
Does Confidentiality Denote Something ‘Bad?’
There is an (often unspoken) assumption that confidentiality is quite necessary because coaching is often a response to something ‘bad’ or something that should be hidden from the public’s eye. The fact that coaching also addresses critical personal and professional performance issues does not mean that it is an entirely reactive process.
Unlike psychotherapy or counseling, coaching is actually more proactive than it is reactive. The ‘deficit’ or ‘fix-it’ perspectives that are sometimes associated with the profession are mostly unfounded. Such perceptions only view coaching as a fire-fighting intervention.
Reactive approaches have more to do with evaluation than coaching. In fact, confidentiality is the only clear-cut distinction between a coach and an evaluator.
NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreement)
Some corporations will require you to sign a non-disclosure agreement when they contract you as a coach. Therefore, you’ll have to carefully consider the fine print so that you do not put yourself in an awkward position with the employee and the management (the sponsor).
However, many organizations prepare NDAs to protect their trade secrets or when the information shared during the sessions might be commercially or industrially sensitive. Depending on the organization or the client, some of the information may even touch on national security.
In a workplace setting, absolute confidentiality is not only rare but quite difficult to achieve. The fact that there are more stakeholders might complicate confidentiality in certain circumstances. Fundamentally, a coach will not disclose the details of the coaching conversations unless it was agreed in the beginning to share such things as public goals or the results, which would have been agreed on by the coachee and any other stakeholders like HRs or Supervisors.
The sponsor, in this case, the employer, is intrinsically invested in the outcome of the coaching and would need candid progress reports from you as a coach. You may also need to share such information as the number of sessions, dates and timings, venues, or even schedules. It may be a matter of records for, say, the HR department, in which case it would be included in your contract.
Fundamentally, ethics is an appreciation of what is wrong or right in certain circumstances and will usually be expressed in a set of rules or guidelines that guide behavior in those circumstances. Various bodies that oversee the coaching practice, such as the ICF (International Coaching Federation) and others, have their own set of ethical guidelines and which have more similarities than differences.
Confidentiality touches on ethics, and as is usually the case in ethical situations, there may be no clear-cut answers. However, as a coach, you can learn to expand your ethical curiosity which will enhance your ability to think, reflect, and altogether avoid ethical blind spots. This, of course, will come with experience.
Having a keen sense of ethical awareness around confidentiality will build confidence and a great foundation for a deep trust between you and your clients. It will demonstrate your professional responsibility and a great reputation as well as your own confidence as you execute your coaching activities.
To Your Success,
Jairek Robbins + Team PCU
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