September 18

Understanding Ethics: The Important Ethical Responsibilities of a Coach


Coaching is a booming industry and it's also an unregulated industry. The problem is, that anyone with any background or ability can call themselves a coach and charge for their services.   Understanding ethics, and the importance of ethics as a coach, is critically important for the entire coaching industry.  

Without ethics, the term “coach” could become recognized as an industry filled with those with low moral integrity, instead of the current view, that as a safe harbor for people wanting to improve their lives.

While the coaching industry is filled with excellent coaches, not every coach provides the professionalism and quality, clients deserve. As a coach, even an untrained coach, you must understand your ethical and moral responsibilities.

Let's explore some of the different codes of ethics and what you must know as a professional coach.

Codes of Ethics from Coaching Organizations

There are several coaching organizations in the world and all have codes of ethics. The International Coach Federation(ICF), the Certified Coaches Federation(CCF), and many other organizations have very clear ethics policies.  It is important all coaches review and understands these codes:

As you review these ethics policies you will find several common themes. Many are common sense regarding personal responsibility, confidentiality, and basic human decency.  However, some codes as discussed below can be particular to the contract a coach has with a client.  While you don't need to memorize a long code of ethics, you must understand your ethical responsibilities as a coach.

Common Themes Outlined in the Coaching Code of Ethics

With good ethical principles, we uphold the term “coach” as one we can all be proud of.  The general public as well as our clients can be assured we will be ethical, honest, and fair in all of our dealings.   They can relax knowing that we have their best intentions in mind and they are entering a safe space when hiring us.

Some of the most common themes found throughout the different coaching code of ethics options include:

  • Not causing harm to yourself or others
  • Not representing yourself as a licensed mental health professional unless you are
  • Acting in a way that will protect the welfare of others
  • Care when a client might have an abusive situation
  • Coaching within the scope of your abilities and competence
  • Caution when making suggestions based on your opinion and not in an area you are not an expert in.
  • Respecting the client's interests
  • Listening and supporting what they want, even if your opinion differs
  • Respecting the laws in the area where you operate
  • Knowing your legal boundaries.

These are just five of the common themes you will find in a code of ethics for coaches. However, it is important to review these documents, especially to determine any specific requirements for your style or niche of coaching.

What Should a Coaching Code of Ethics Include?

All professional associations provide a set of principles to help members understand their ethical responsibilities. These include; doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, police, etc… When you join one of these associations, you will be required to pledge to abide by the code of ethics they provide. Some of the broader or common tenants you will find in all association’s codes of ethics include:

  • Competence - Coaches need to maintain a high standard of competence within their work.
  • Integrity - Coaches must remain honest and fair. They should be aware of how their belief systems and values may impact their work.
  • Professional Responsibility - Coaches should always uphold specific standards as a professional.
  • Respect for the Rights and Dignity of Others - As a coach, you need to treat your clients with respect and dignity. You maintain awareness of potential cultural differences and respect the fundamental rights of the people you work with.

As a coach or member of any organization, you are required to follow the code of ethics for that particular association or face possible disciplinary action. Depending on the organization a member can be subject to; sanctions, reprimands, fines, censorship, expulsions, and even legal consequences.  While they do vary, many have common themes.

For the coaching profession, we have specific ethical responsibilities to our clients, such as:

  • Explain the value of coaching, limits of confidentiality, financial agreement, and any other coaching agreements you use.
  • Creating a contract that defines the roles and responsibilities of you and those you coach.
  • Make sure you have a very strict level of confidentiality with your clients.
  • Understand how information is exchanged between you and your clients.
  • Know how to properly maintain, store, and dispose of records, including electronic files and communications.

Having a solid understanding of the code of ethics is critical and not something you want to skip or take lightly. Coaches can, and do face legal consequences.   Coaches are sued regularly for breaches of ethics, which can contain serious penalties.  This is one reason many coaches purchase liability or errors and omission insurance to protect themselves from unintentional or malicious charges from clients.

Why is a Code of Ethics Important?

A code of ethics is important for both the client and the coach. Adhering to a code of ethics as a coach, you are protecting yourself and your clients.

Protecting the Clients

As a coach, you have an ethical responsibility to protect your clients. These ethical practices must be a part of all your interactions with clients from the very start. From the interview stage through hiring and implementation.  Clients seek ethical coaches, so they can remain protected from harm, dishonesty, and even malpractice.  This is one of the core reasons for coaching organizations to promote coaching but also give the general public assurance that coaching is an ethical-based process.

Clients need to know their coach will always:

  • Act in their best interest
  • Respect their identity
  • Keep their information confidential
  • Avoid any type of conflict of interest

If a client does not trust their coach, the relationship will not be developed and will end. Clients must always feel safe with their coach or coaching would not exist.

Protecting the Coach

A code of ethics also protects coaches. By following a specific code of ethics, you will greatly reduce the chances of any misunderstanding about the responsibilities of you the coach, and the client. For instance, clearly stating that you are not a licensed mental health practitioner and the client’s emotional wellbeing is their responsibility. If experiencing mental health issues, it is up to them to seek a qualified professional.

So the code of ethics acts as a guide for clients and informs them of what to expect. It can also provide the client with assurance the coach must adhere to continued professional development to maintain their skills.  When you, as a coach, become a member of a professional organization that has a code of ethics, it offers credentials that communicate professionalism to your clients.

A Code of Ethics Also Protects the Coaching Profession

In conclusion, coaching is a growing industry, but also unregulated. Unlike other industries where a professional may need to get a license from the state to practice, coaches are not required to do so. This means coaches have to go a different route to gain credentials and be seen as a professional.

When you decide to call yourself a coach, you now represent the coaching industry. It doesn't matter the certification you have or whether you've been trained, you still become a face of the coaching industry. Without a good understanding of your ethical responsibilities as a coach, you might give the coaching industry as a whole a bad name.

Ethical practices will help the coaching industry continue to thrive. It will also help you be seen as a professional, that can be trusted by clients. Make sure you have a strong understanding of your ethical responsibilities as a coach and follow a strong code of ethics.


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