#Confidentiality in #coaching is, to me – and I believe it is reasonable to say to the ICF and EMCC and many other coaches – a matter of #Ethics. Now, Ethics has a bad rep for being heavy or difficult, when in actual fact, ethics is a daily practice of thinking about who you want to be and how you want to be in the world where more than one binary opposite is true at the same time, and there are options for what is convenient, fast and easy available.

Why Ethics? Because how we deal with confidentiality has an impact on what we perceive as right doing, right relationship, good and best practice and governance standards, and to some extent, legal precedent and contractual obligations.

If ethical practice is a part of daily practice, and confidentiality is part of ethical practice, then it stands to reason that coaches should be thinking regularly about how confidentiality shows up in various different applications of coaching relationships and agreements. Feedback from clients, taking advice from legal experts, supervision and other practitioners all form part of considerations a coach may take on their stance for confidentiality.

Confidentility Coaching umbrella

Before we get into some examples, let me also say that the stance on confidentiality should be clearly communicated, over communicated, checked for understanding and given opportunities throughout the journey to be discussed and re-confirmed or changed. The coach should also, like any aspect of ethical practice in coaching, be clear on their boundaries and what they are willing to support variance on, and what not – and critically, why not. This requires reflection, experimentation, research, and most of all, systemic thinking. Personally I always communicate core issues of the coaching relationship in various ways.

I may be wrong, but perhaps it is simpler to a degree for coaches who deal in one type of coaching, or in one industry segment of coaching. I only say this because I find variations and exceptions in the different types of coaching I practice when it comes to confidentiality. So, let’s now explore some examples.

Confidentiality in one-on-one private coaching relationships

In private one-on-one coaching conversations, what is discussed remains confidential between the coach and coachee on the condition that:

  • The law is not being broken
  • There is no risk for harm to self or others
  • The coach has not been summons or issued a subpoena to offer evidence in court

Should the coach be aware that the client is also in therapy, and there is an agreement to work in a three-way agreement to support the client (client, therapist, coach), then the client remains responsible to update both therapist and coach, unless there are explicit agreements otherwise. My preference remains to always either have the client present in conversations or that the client directly updates both.

The coach keeps log for which sessions were had, the dates, a name and some means to get back to contact details. Due to POPI the requirements from the ICF for access to being able to contact clients may lead coaches to have a system in place to re-engineer this, but, may not have all this data in one place in order to protect the identity of the client. This file should be stored securely.

In my practice, I invite clients to request recordings of their sessions if this will serve them. These are sent to the client in a manner that is secure, which they can suggest or the coach has researched and makes transparent to the client for confirmation. The recordings are shredded afterwards as best practice.

The last part around confidentiality in individual coaching journeys for private clients extend into conversations about relationships the client has, which the coach share. This includes people, organisations, communities etc. IF there is a conflict of interest where the coach becomes prive to information that places them in a conflict of interest, they need to address this ethically and professionally.

All of these aspects are discussed with the coachee before the journey starts and the client is left at choice to decide how to proceed. Below, we will address the issue of confidentiality when a sponsor is present – this may present in relationships where a parent sponsors a child, or a friend pays of coaching of a friend, a spouse, a family member, an NGO, a training institute etc.

Confidentiality in one-on-one coaching relationships in an organisation

All of the confidentiality details apply as for individual coaching journeys in a private capacity, however, there is an added layer of complexity that is always present in an organisation that can sometimes also be present in private sessions where a sponsor is present.

In organisations the principle around not breaking the law or causing harm also extends to there not being:

–         Harm to the organisation by way of sabotage, omission or misrepresentation

–         Breaking of the employee agreement or policies

In this case, a process and strategy needs to have been agreed up front between the organisation, coachee and coach to address these situations ethically and professionally.

With regards to confidentiality in organisations where a sponsor is present, the coach needs to be clear that it is the responsibility of the coachee to give feedback and update on progress regarding their journey. The Coach will only ever say that:

–         A session was held (or number of sessions were held)

–         The length of the session and the type of coaching (individual coaching)

–         If a session was cancelled, missed or postponed

The coach will not talk about the topic, outcomes, their impressions, progress, details or anything other than the above.

The coach also needs to be clear on the dynamics of knowing information about the coachee, the sponsor, a leader, another individual being coached by the same coach – and how this might step into conflict of interest. Regarding confidentiality, it is best to manage boundaries up front on who the coach is able to coach or not, given existing coaching relationships, to ensure that there isn’t an accidental slip by the coach.

Confidentiality in group coaching relationships in a public setting

In group coaching the way in which confidentiality is dealt with needs to be elected and agreed by the participants. The coach needs to be explicit about their way of dealing with confidentiality; but cannot dictate that to coachees as this is not the way a coach operates to be directive in the domain of the coachee.

There are typically two ways group coachees elect to deal with confidentiality:

1.      What happens in coaching, stays in coaching – not a word leaves the session, about anything.

2.      If its not your story to tell, don’t tell it – but by all means share your experience and your learning with people in your life. Names and details remain anonymous.

Sometimes the coach may need to position variations and options to enable different perspectives from which the coachees can choose – and other times, they simply find their way. The nature of group coaching may sometimes involve individual coaching conversations while the rest of the group watches – this is an important place to recontract on confidentiality in service of the individual being coached.

Confidentiality in a group coaching relationship within an organisation

In organisations, the above perspective on group coaching is extended into more detail. The following questions may want to be unpacked at the start of the journey:

  • What if you learn something about someone in this journey that influences your career, the career of a colleague or impacts on an objective?
  • What if you learn something about someone, their work, or mistakes they have made, that seem significant to people in your team, division or even your future career aspirations?
  • What if someone shares something that brings to light the breaking of the employee agreement or policies of the organisation by them or someone else?
  • What if your colleagues ask you to spill the beans about someone that is in group coaching with you?
  • What if your manager asks you about what progress is like in group coaching and then asks about the journey of a colleague they also manage?

This may want to also be discussed with the sponsor present, and also discussed before engaging coachees – with the appropriate representatives within the organisation who enforce policies in this domain.

Confidentiality in in team coaching relationships

By its very nature, teams imply some kind of larger entity for which and in which the team operates. There is usually also a sponsor – either someone outside of the team, or a member of the team. Similar to group coaching, the team needs to discuss how they want to deal with confidentiality but because the focus is on the collective and not focused on individuals there may be variations the coach may want to consider.

As a coach, when doing team work, things might be shared about stakeholders, leaders, team members or other teams that impact on the work the team is doing. What the coach must avoid as a priority, is to get into a position where they are colluding with politics or drama or accidentally get roped into opinions about others in order to side with the team.

For this reason, often times, team coaches have a rule: “No Secrets.” This means that whatever is said in team coaching will be made transparent if it pertains to people outside of the team; and, if a team member is spoken about in their absence, the team coach will raise this equally.  The coach always does this with EVERYONE in the room, and reveals what was said, but not by whom it was said.