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"What is ‘ethical practice’?

This blog is intended for coaches and trainee coaches looking to deepen their capability and confidence in coaching.

This post is the first in a series looking at the new ICF core competencies in practice.


Without a strong foundation, a building is weak and unstable and at risk of falling down. In a coaching engagement we can think of the strong foundation as how we create and maintain the engagement itself and the two elements that the ICF core competencies call "Foundation” are demonstrating ethical practice and embodying a coaching mindset. In this post we will explore ethical practice.


Ethical practice protects both client and coach. Putting relationships on the right footing helps avoid problems later in the engagement. Challenges in coaching often arise not in the content of coaching - the things we spend most time on in coach training and development- but in the form of the coaching engagement. This is particularly the case where coaching includes multiple stakeholders e.g. the field of executive coaching. However, ethical issues also occur when coaching private individuals.

For the ICF, ethical practice a core competency, defined by a coach ‘understanding and consistently applying coaching ethics and standards of coaching’. These require that a coach:

  • Demonstrates personal integrity and honesty in interactions with clients, sponsors and relevant stakeholders

  • Is sensitive to clients’ identity, environment, experiences, values and beliefs

  • Uses language appropriate and respectful to clients, sponsors and relevant stakeholders

  • Abides by the ICF Code of Ethics and upholds the Core Values

  • Maintains confidentiality with client information per stakeholder agreements and pertinent laws

  • Maintains the distinctions between coaching, consulting, psychotherapy and other support professions

  • Refers clients to other support professionals, as appropriate

As you can see, ethical practice is not just a list of “thou shalt nots” but reflects the complex responsibilities a coach has to the coachee, other stakeholders, the profession and society.


As with ethics generally, what to do in any particular situation is context dependent and therefore having a supervisor to whom to turn to reflect on any issues is best practice. However, there are a few common areas in which these issues frequently crop up and we will examine each of these in turn.

Contracting and recontracting:

It is the coaches responsibility to make sure a coachee knows what type of coaching they are engaging in, what to expect and when the parameters may need to change. An example might be noticing that the client often cancels at the last minute and even with a strong cancellation policy, understood by the coachee, ethical practice would suggest an enquiry into what was getting in the way of the appointments, what changes might need to be made and whether the coachee indeed wishes to continue.

Similarly if something happens such that coaching may no longer be appropriate, the coach should broach the conversation with the coachee or other stakeholders.


All coaches should be familiar with the conditions in respect to individual coaching engagements when they are required to reveal what would otherwise be confidential information. At a minimum these would be:

  • If the coachee is at risk of harming themselves or others

  • In accordance with pertinent laws

In some jurisdictions there are positive duties to report certain information to authorities without informing a coachee.

If coaching is part of a professional programme in which the sponsor has asked coaches to report on ‘themes’ or specific matters to sponsors or managers this should be explained to a coachee upfront and best practice would be to remind them of the limits of confidentiality in a coaching conversation that was heading in that direction.

Confidentiality also arises in respect of other conversations you may have with stakeholders as part of an engagement, for example, 360 interviews. Being clear about the levels and limits of confidentiality is important not just for ethical practice but also to maintain trust with your coachee.

It is also good to include in your agreement with a client the ability to consult a supervisor on an anonymised basis.

Potential conflicts of interest:

Identifying conflicts of interest in the first place can be tricky since by its nature, a conflict of interest is a situation in which we have an inherent interest which skews our perspective. The trickiest ones are the sort we love to discuss as case studies in supervision training where the conflicts are subtle and a coach may not be conscious of them - or admitting them to him/herself. An example here would be continuing or renewing a coaching relationship because we are benefiting from it in some way. When there is an obvious benefit eg fees that may be easier to see. But harder when it is a benefit to our ego, for example.

Similarly in recommending clients to other coaches, advisors or practitioners we should be aware of any potential conflicts in recommendations based on personal relationships or other benefits. Where there are commissions paid by other coaches or advisors for our recommendations, we should be transparent about that.

Multiple parties or multiple roles:

When coaching within organisations there are often multiple stakeholders to navigate, all of whom are owed a duty of care and responsibility. There may be a sponsoring organisation represented by, e.g. HR, a coachee, a manager, possibly other stakeholders if you are conducting 360 interviews. If you do continuing work with the organisation over time, there may be situations where you are asked to coach peers, reports or even managers of existing coachees.

If you also facilitate programmes or team or group coaching within the organisation, or do other forms of consulting you may find yourself wearing different hats and it may be that in a role as coach, coachees reveal things to you which then affect your opinion as a consultant.

Different companies may themselves have rules or guidelines for e.g. whether the same coach may be assigned to both a manager and his/her report, or whether peers on a team may have the same coach.

Ultimately these situations are food for our development as they invite us to be reflective about what we do and why. In this, supervision has a big part to play in helping us develop and evolve our own philosophy as a practitioner,


A discussion of what constitutes “right relationship” has been central to Eastern philosophies, such as Confucianism and Taoism, and the work of Western philosophers from Aristotle to Habermas and Buber. It is also examined in the context of psychotherapy as well as indigenous thinking.

The core idea of “Right relationship” is that there is healthy balance between participants and not one in which there is coercion or dominance of one’s interests over the other. This is of particular importance in coaching since the coach's role is to empower the coachee and this includes in the form and conduct of coaching as well as within coaching conversations.


Rather than thinking of ‘foundation’ in a mechanistic way we might switch to an organic metaphor in which paying attention to how we create and maintain the relationship with a coachee is like nourishing the soil in which the coaching engagement can take root and thrive.


Integral coaching draws on the work of philosophers Heidegger, Habermas and Buber as well as psychotherapy in the tradition of Carl Rogers, seeing the relationship between coach and coachee as fundamental to what is able to develop within the coaching engagement.

From Habermas we take the principles of establishing ‘mutual trust, respect and freedom of expression’ which we might see as aligned to the need for ethical practice: trust is eroded where a coach privileges their own interests, is unreliable or breaks confidentiality.

We also draw from a person-centred approach following Rogers characterised by empathy, authenticity and unconditional positive regard, which fit into the first three tenets of ethical practice as defined by the ICF but also underlie the other foundational ICF core competency, ‘embodying coach mindset’ which we will explore in the next post.


  • Here are ICF Core Competencies

  • Here are the ICF Code of Ethics

  • Here are the ICF Core Values

  • Here is a longer document about ICF Ethics exploring the standards in more detail

  • The book "Building Trust", by Solomon and Flores is a good read on how trust is an emotional skill to be cultivated.

  • You may wish to review your contracts to ensure you are including ethical practice in your agreements

  • You may wish to create a checklist for yourself of things to explain to your coachees about confidentiality etc

  • You may wish to join a supervision group or engage a supervisor so that you can work through issues or case studies in ethical practice

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