Ethics FAQs

For coaches to better understand and apply the ICF Code of Ethics, the following list of questions and answers was compiled by the 2015 ICF Ethics and Standards Committee.

To explore a standard in-depth, please click the blue text to expand.

Section 1: Professional Conduct at Large

As a coach, I:

1) Conduct myself in accordance with the ICF Code of Ethics in all interactions, including coach training, coach mentoring and coach supervisory activities.

Q: I work for an organization and supervise coach training, am I bound by the ICF code of ethics?
A: Yes, indeed. 

Q: Does this mean that practice-coach sessions during training are confidential? 
A: Each program is encouraged to set up written standards for what will be confidential during training. Some programs feel student-teacher conversations or practice coaching conversations need be public so they can be observed and critiqued.

2) Commit to take the appropriate action with the coach, trainer, or coach mentor and/or will contact ICF to address any ethics violation or possible breach as soon as I become aware, whether it involves me or others.

Q: I have seen an ICF coach promoting themselves as a PCC when they actually hold an ACC Credential.
A: Yes, this is the essence of the self-regulating nature of our industry and a necessary component. If the incident is a direct violation of the ICF Code of Ethics, you may submit a complaint through the formal Ethical Conduct Review (ECR) process.

3) Communicate and create awareness in others, including organizations, employees, sponsors, coaches and others, who might need to be informed of the responsibilities established by this Code.

Q: What if a client doesn’t get the desired results by the end of the coaching?
A: The purpose of coaching is not for the client to get results. Read the above definition of coaching in the Code. Explain to the client at the beginning (and maybe more times) that coaching inspires people to maximize potential, learning and increasing awareness in the process and having the ability to respond. It is the client’s responsibility to get results, not the coach’s.

4) Refrain from unlawful discrimination in occupational activities, including age, race, gender orientation, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, national origin or disability.

Q: How can I better understand what determines discrimination when coaching clients?
A: Refer to state, provincial, or national law to determine what is considered discrimination in your area.

5) Make verbal and written statements that are true and accurate about what I offer as a coach, the coaching profession or ICF.

Q: I have a Masters Degree in Communication, can I put that on my coaching website and just say I have a Masters Degree?
A: Whatever degrees and credentials you choose to put on your site should clearly state which degree goes with which profession so that the information presented is not misleading. For example, a Master's degree in Communication is clearly stated whereas a Master's degree by itself might mislead the reader to think that it is in coaching.

6) Accurately identify my coaching qualifications, expertise, experience, training, certifications and ICF Credentials.

Q: I have coached two executives, can I say I’m an experienced executive coach?
A:
This could be misleading. Perhaps saying “I have coached executives” would be appropriate. However, someone who has coached two executives for a length of time through a lot of issues might be experienced. It seems to be a personal judgment call.

7) Recognize and honor the efforts and contributions of others and only claim ownership of my own material. I understand that violating this standard may leave me subject to legal remedy by a third party.

Q: I have worked with a business partner in the past and now I am on my own. Can I use the tools and documents that we created when we were together?
A:
The correct answer is whatever you and your former business partner had agreed to. If there was no specific agreement, discuss it before doing it to avoid an unnecessary conflict. Our ethics code applies to coach-client and coach-sponsor relationships only. ICF committees are developing guidelines for business standards.

Q: I found an excellent 20 item questionnaire used to attract clients on another coach’s website. May I use some of the questions on my website without getting permission?
A: No, you may not use them without obtaining permission.

Q: I wish to provide documentation of the effectiveness of coaching to a company who might buy my services. I have two articles that make my points about the great ROI coaching can bring. Do I need to contact the author or publisher to use some of the points to make a PowerPoint presentation for my marketing pitch?
A:
Yes.

8) Strive at all times to recognize my personal issues that may impair, conflict with or interfere with my coaching performance or my professional coaching relationships. I will promptly seek the relevant professional assistance and determine the action to be taken, including whether it is appropriate to suspend or terminate my coaching relationship(s) whenever the facts and circumstances necessitate.

Q: I am coaching Jane, and a peer of hers, Alice, requests me to be her coach. Do I need to let Alice know I am already coaching Jane?
A:
No, you do not need to. Unless you have Alice’s consent, you may not even mention it. Be aware, however, that this could present conflicts with confidentiality. Potential general conflicts should be clarified with each party.

9) Recognize that the Code of Ethics applies to my relationship with coaching clients, coachees, students, mentees and supervisees.

Q: Is the ICF Code of Ethics applicable only to the coach/ client relationship?
A: No, the Code is applicable in any situation in which you serve as a coach or supporting roles, such as Coach Trainer, Coach Mentor, etc.

10) Conduct and report research with competence, honesty and within recognized scientific standards and applicable subject guidelines. My research will be carried out with the necessary consent and approval of those involved, and with an approach that will protect participants from any potential harm. All research efforts will be performed in a manner that complies with all the applicable laws of the country in which the research is conducted.

Q: Does this mean I have to conduct research as an ICF Coach?
A:
Though we encourage continuing learning, you are not required to conduct research. If you do, it is imperative that it be of the highest quality so be sure to follow recognized scientific methods/procedures and abide by relevant country law.

11) Maintain, store and dispose of any records, including electronic files and communications, created during my coaching engagements in a manner that promotes confidentiality, security, and privacy and complies with any applicable laws and agreements.

Q. Do I have to provide client records in case of subpoena or ethical complaint?
A: This will vary by country and jurisdiction, but generally, yes. Consider carefully what you put in your records.

Q: How long do I have to keep client records?
A: There is no ICF guideline at this time. You should check your local and national laws and regulations for compliance guidelines. If you are audited for income taxes, be sure to protect confidentiality. 

Q: How should I dispose of records?
A: To the best of your ability you should delete all online and electronic records, as well as shred paper records.

12) Use ICF Member contact information (email addresses, telephone numbers, and so on) only in the manner and to the extent authorized by ICF.

Q: Can I advertise my coaching school’s new course by emailing coaches in my area?
A: No, unsolicited ‘spam’ emails are a violation of the ICF Code of Ethics, as well as the Can-Spam Act of 2003 and other international privacy laws.

Section 2: Conflicts of Interest

As a coach, I:

13) Seek to be conscious of any conflict or potential conflict of interest, openly disclose any such conflict and offer to remove myself when a conflict arises.

Conflict of Interest: A conflict of interest exists when you have an interest that interferes with your responsibilities as a coach or interferes with your ability to act in the best interest of the coaching profession. A conflict of interest may arise when you use your role as a coach for inappropriate personal gain or when personal interests conflict with your coaching agreement. Examples of conflicts to avoid include accepting or offering payments outside the coaching agreement or having a substantial investment or position in any business to which you are providing coaching services. Coaches should avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Q: May I accept a coaching contract for a corporate mid-level manager when I am already coaching his boss?  
A: You may accept this contract if you think that you can maintain an objective stance and confidentiality with both clients. You can discuss in general terms with the first client how he would feel about you coaching someone else in the company. Be aware it could present a conflict of interest while coaching, however, in hiring and firing decisions, etc.

Q: If I am an internal manager, should I coach someone if I also have input into the performance evaluation?
A: This would appear to be a conflict of interest, and you should probably not coach this person. You may use coaching competencies at any time, such as Active Listening and Powerful Questioning, etc. However, because you are the manager, the fact that you are going to be evaluating your employee might inhibit openness and trust in the relationship.

Q: May I coach a family member or friend?
A: Yes, as long as you explain in advance how your role as a coach is different than your role as a friend or family member.

14) Clarify roles for internal coaches, set boundaries and review with stakeholders conflicts of interest that may emerge between coaching and other role functions.

Q: How do I ensure there are no misunderstandings between the involved parties?
A: Whatever is determined by your organization, be sure all parties are privy to the agreement and aware of all the relationship dynamics to ensure transparency.

15) Disclose to my client and the sponsor(s) all anticipated compensation from third parties that I may receive for referrals of clients or pay to receive clients.

Q: I am coaching someone who needs a service. I know of a resource for him and I receive a referral fee from the resource. Do I have to disclose this to the client?
A: Yes you do.

Q: I received a surprise gift of baseball tickets from my realtor after I referred my client to her. Must I tell my client I received these tickets?
A: If the gift was not anticipated and happens after the referral is made, no disclosure is necessary.

Q: If I have a multi-level marketing business, can I sell my product to my coaching clients?
A: The coaching relationship might be impaired if you sell other products to the client, as the client might perceive undue pressure to purchase from you.

16) Honor an equitable coach/client relationship, regardless of the form of compensation.

Q: My client says she does not have the money to pay for my coaching services and requests to barter. She believes she cannot make enough money to pay for the things she wants. Does her belief impair the coaching relationship?
A: It might, so you would need to explore further before coming to a conclusion.

Q: Can I charge different rates for different clients depending upon circumstances? E.g., welfare, corporate clients, friends, family…
A: Yes. Best practice includes having a Rate Sheet that defines your pricing structure. This provides transparency. Keep in mind that the more rates you have, the more cumbersome is your business administration.

Section 3: Professional Conduct with Clients

As a coach, I:

17) Ethically speak what I know to be true to clients, prospective clients or sponsors about the potential value of the coaching process or of me as a coach.

Q: I have been coaching for many years and collecting data about the success rate of my clients. May I share the results I have with prospective clients?
A:
It is okay to share data that is appropriate and accurate without enhancement or distortions, with no guarantees in any form. The prospective client can draw his/her own conclusions. Be sure to keep any data confidential as to client identification.

18) Carefully explain and strive to ensure that, prior to or at the initial meeting, my coaching client and sponsor(s) understand the nature of coaching, the nature and limits of confidentiality, financial arrangements, and any other terms of the coaching agreement.

Q: Must I have an agreement with pro bono clients who do not pay for my services?
A:
Yes because there is more to an agreement than just the fee. Responsibilities and expectations must be clearly defined in order for this to be a professional coaching relationship. For the agreement to be considered valid under the law in many jurisdictions, a nominal amount of money must be transferred from the one receiving the services to the one delivering the services, for example, $1 in the US and 1 Euro in Europe, etc.

Q: My clients often ask how long coaching takes. Can I give an average time?
A: You can say that many of your clients receive coaching for X amount of sessions or months, but it varies by individual goals and ability to implement new skills.

19) Have a clear coaching service agreement with my clients and sponsor(s) before beginning the coaching relationship and honor this agreement. The agreement shall include the roles, responsibilities, and rights of all parties involved.

Q: After several meetings with my client, he has begun to cancel appointments at the last minute. I think I should charge him, and my contract does not cover this. May I send him a bill for the missed meetings? 
A: If you have not contracted with the client to pay for missed meetings, you should honor your original agreement and may not charge for canceled meetings. You may, however, attempt to re-contract.

Q: When my client began coaching I was charging a certain rate and the sponsor paid that amount. My client took a three-month leave of absence and during that time I raised my rates. I feel it is fair to ask the sponsor for my new fee.
A: You should honor the original agreement you and your client and sponsor signed if the contract is still valid. You may open up negotiations to begin a new agreement.

Q: When I coach within my own company, is this necessary?
A: Yes. Particularly, in this case, these need to be clarified both with the client and sponsor.

Q: Must I have an agreement with pro bono clients who do not pay for my services?
A: Yes because there is more to an agreement than just the fee. Responsibilities and expectations must be clearly defined in order for this to be a professional coaching relationship. For the agreement to be considered valid under the law in many jurisdictions, a nominal amount of money must be transferred from the one receiving the services to the one delivering the services, for example, $1 in the US and 1 Euro in Europe, etc.

20) Hold responsibility for being aware of and setting clear, appropriate and culturally sensitive boundaries that govern interactions, physical or otherwise, I may have with my clients or sponsor(s).

Q: Is it OK to give my clients a brief hug after our meetings?
A: The coach is responsible for setting and respecting culturally appropriate physical boundaries, which includes sensitivity to the client’s boundaries and expectations. If the client initiates, the coach may choose to reciprocate or not. The coach may not initiate the hug. 

21) Avoid any sexual or romantic relationship with current clients or sponsor(s) or students, mentees or supervisees. Further, I will be alert to the possibility of any potential sexual intimacy among the parties including my support staff and/or assistants and will take the appropriate action to address the issue or cancel the engagement in order to provide a safe environment overall.

Q: Does this mean I cannot coach my spouse, partner, or significant other?
A: Whereas coaching your spouse may offer opportunities for conflicts of interest, as well as confidentiality problems, it is fine to do so if you have clear boundaries and clarify your relationship as a coach and client before you start. Whatever sexual activity exists before the relationship may continue. A new level of intimacy may not be initiated during the coaching relationship. For example, the coaching relationship must end if you agree to date someone you are coaching in response to their request for the same.

Q: If my client invites me out to a social engagement, may I accept? 
A:
Accepting the engagement would be appropriate if:

  • the coach and client both think that the coaching relationship would not be impaired.
  • the coach can remain objective in the coaching meetings. 

If however, the coach finds it difficult to maintain the boundaries of a coaching relationship with the client, then the coach has the option to terminate the relationship and refer the client to another coach. A good guideline is that whatever the nature of the relationship prior to beginning coaching is where it should remain throughout the duration of the coaching arrangement.

22) Respect the client’s right to terminate the coaching relationship at any point during the process, subject to the provisions of the agreement. I shall remain alert to indications that there is a shift in the value received from the coaching relationship.

Q: My client paid in full and we agreed to 10 coaching meetings. After 6 meetings my client wants to stop. She says she wants her money back because she has not received the value she expected. Must I give it back?
A: 
If you did not clarify what might happen under these circumstances then you must discuss this with your client. You may attempt to negotiate with the client to be paid for services rendered to date. It would be advisable to return either the amount beyond services rendered to date, the entire amount minus an administrative fee or the entire amount. Use your best judgment and remember that how you handle this will craft your reputation.

Q: How can I refer a client to a therapist, without implying that I am diagnosing?
A: If the coach is also a licensed therapist or psychologist as well as a coach, then recognizing psychological issues are within the coach’s skill set and the coach can suggest the client consider addressing those issues outside coaching. If the coach is not a licensed therapist but thinks that the client might benefit from another professional or resource, options might be explored with the client.

23) Encourage the client or sponsor to make a change if I believe the client or sponsor would be better served by another coach or by another resource and suggest my client seek the services of other professionals when deemed necessary or appropriate.

Q: I know a lot about nutrition from dieting and taking vitamins and my client has a goal to know more about nutrition. May I share with her what I know?
A: More appropriate than giving her information would be to encourage her to find an expert or consultant who is trained in that area. Recommending a professional nutritionist, websites, literature, books would all be acceptable.

Q: My client wants to explore how her past relationships have formed her beliefs about current relationships. I have a degree in psychology and learned a lot about that topic. Can I devote time to coaching her about this?
A: If you are not a practicing psychologist or therapist, it is not appropriate to bring this information into the coaching relationship and you should encourage your client to find another professional to help. If you are trained, you could consider creating a separate agreement to deal with this after your coaching relationship has ended. Whereas you might be clear enough in the role differentiation, likely it would be confusing to the client to have you as a therapist and coach even if not at the same time.

Section 4: Confidentiality/Privacy

As a coach, I:

24) Maintain the strictest levels of confidentiality with all client and sponsor information unless release is required by law. 

Q: Must I have a contract for a 9-year old client?
A: Depending on local laws, if the person is a minor, the contract should include the sponsor as well as the client. 

Q: During an interview for a research project (or journal article or media event) the interviewer asks me how many women executives I have coached, in what countries and what states, and may she have contact information to follow-up. May I give her this information?
A:
You may give information that may never be traceable back to the person, such as how many and in which country or state. This satisfies the principle of anonymity. You may not give contact information without the client’s permission. If you include sharing of contact information in your initial agreement that is fine; otherwise you must contact your clients and/or their sponsors or former clients and/or their sponsors and ask permission.

Q: My colleague asks me in which IT companies I have had as clients. May I tell him? May I mention companies on my web site?
A: This issue is very complex and besides the confidentiality, it may have legal implications of copyright infringement. Your contract with both the client and the sponsor should be specific to whether you may use their name. Be aware that contracts of your client and/or sponsor may include language regarding this issue. The best practice to maintain good client relationships is to request client’s and/or sponsor’s permission to use their name and or/logo, if not explicitly stated in your contract.

Q: Is it acceptable to keep my calendar that includes clients’ appointment times visible on my desk or at the reception desk?
A: No, because anyone walking by can read the names of your clients.

Q: Can I use former clients as references for prospective clients?
A: Yes, but only if you have their specific permission from the client or sponsor to do so. Provide the prospective client with the (specific) person's contact information.

Q: My client asks if I know anyone working in retail management so he can contact them to make progress on his job search in that field. He wants contact information. Some of my former clients would be perfect for him. May I give him their names and contact information?
A: Not without permission from the former clients. 

Q: Is verbal permission for release of confidentiality acceptable or must I obtain it in writing?
A: It is more solid and irrefutable in writing.

25) Have a clear agreement about how coaching information will be exchanged among coach, client and sponsor.

Q: The HR Department is paying for my coaching services for 6 clients and they signed the agreement as the sponsor. The Accounting Department needs information about how many meetings I anticipate so they can do budget projections for the upcoming year. May I give accounting this information?
A: It is recommended that this information is obtained directly from the sponsor. 

Q: Next, Accounting wants to know which Departments my clients are in. May I give accounting this information?
A:
It is recommended that this information is obtained directly from the sponsor.

Q: They now want the names of the clients as well. May I give accounting this information?
A: It is recommended that this information is obtained directly from the sponsor. However, if not possible, you may give this information only with receiving the clients’ and sponsor’s permission. 

Q: A 360-degree assessment came back from an external vendor. I am hired to coach a team of managers using this data. The first step is to design a Developmental Plan for each member of the team and the team as a whole. HR wants to know the coaching objectives we developed for their internal productivity study. May I share the objectives I generate with my clients with HR?
A: Ideally this should have been covered by the agreement when the coaching agreement was set up. If not, however, it can be provided with the client’s and sponsor’s permission.

Q: I am coaching a 12-year old boy and his father calls me to ask how it is going. May I speak with him in generalities?
A: Only if your client agrees, or has agreed already in the contract that all three of you have signed.

Q: The supervisor of my new client has a coaching outcome that he does not want the client to know about. I am being paid out of the supervisor’s budget. May I keep this information from my client?
A: This sets up an ethical conflict. How can you coach someone without having clarity and an agreement about what is being coached? Whatever you put in your agreement that all three sign is what is acceptable. 

Q: May I coach a business client who has some personal outcomes that are not shared with the sponsor?
A: Coaching for personal outcomes is an integral part of all professional coaching. Whatever is stated in the contract or agreement will govern what can be shared.

26) Have a clear agreement when acting as a coach, coach mentor, coaching supervisor or trainer, with both client and sponsor, student, mentee, or supervisee about the conditions under which confidentiality may not be maintained (e.g., illegal activity, pursuant to valid court order or subpoena; imminent or likely risk of danger to self or to others; etc) and make sure both client and sponsor, student, mentee, or supervisee voluntarily and knowingly agree in writing to that limit of confidentiality. Where I reasonably believe that because one of the above circumstances is applicable, I may need to inform appropriate authorities.

Q: After triads of coaching students have practiced coaching, the entire group convenes to share experiences. One of the coaching students mentions personal information that was shared in the small group without having asked the other student if this was ok. Isn’t this acceptable because this is just training and not real coaching with real clients?
A: No, unless there have been confidentiality ground rules clarified in advance to permit this. Ground rules should be explicit about when, why and how confidential information can be shared. Ground rules have to also be specific about confidentiality and/or anonymity.

Q: I share with my coach training colleague about a coaching incident in which I learned something that concerns me about the student’s health. My colleague goes directly to the student and asks if she can help. Is this a violation of confidentiality?
A: This depends on the confidentiality policy in place for the training. It must be shared with faculty and students. It may allow for collegial sharing for training purposes. 

27) Require all those who work with me in support of my clients to adhere to the ICF Code of Ethics, Number 26, Section 4, Confidentiality and Privacy Standards, and any other sections of the Code of Ethics that might be applicable.

Q: I have a virtual assistant in another part of the country whom I have never met in person. I give her names of clients and contact information so she can confirm meetings and send emails. Do I need an ICF Ethics ethics agreement with her?
A: Yes. 

Q: My young daughter helps me with minor administrative office tasks such as filing clients’ files and preparing personalized coaching packages. Do I need an agreement dealing with ICF Ethics with her?
A: Yes.

Q: I subcontract with an OD Firm to do assessments with my coaching clients. Do I need to make this firm adhere to the ICF Code – Confidentiality/Privacy standards?
A: Yes.

Q: I send audio and video recordings to a transcription service and I use the transcriptions for assessing student competencies. Do I need to make this firm adhere to the ICF Code – Confidentiality/Privacy standards?
A: Yes.

Q: I have an agreement with my assistant and it includes the ICF Ethics section #26 on the Ethics Code and we both signed it. She violates this clause. Who is responsible? Me or her or both of us?
A: The coach is responsible for the violation.

Section 5: Continuing Development

As a coach, I:

28) Commit to the need for continued and ongoing development of my professional skills.

Q: If I am an ICF Global Member, is it a Code violation if I don’t participate in continuing education every year?
A: No, but we certainly encourage continuing education so one may refine their skills. However, as an ICF Credential-holder, you do commit to continuing education to enhance your skills in some capacity and it is required to renew your credential.

A special thanks to Teri-E Belf, MCC and the ICF Ethics Community of Practice.