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Private and Confidential

Posted by Sue McMahon | February 28, 2018 | Comments (11)

Have you ever considered what it would be like to open your Inbox one morning, only to discover the following email notification?

Ethical Conduct Review – Notice of Investigation

This letter is to inform you that the Initial Review Panel has made a preliminary determination that a breach of the ICF Code of Ethics has been adequately alleged in the complaint filed against you.

As Chair of the ICF Ethics Independent Review Board (IRB), I oversee the Ethical Conduct Review (ECR) process. I’ve witnessed the stressful impact that the complaint process has on coaches. Not only is this a time-consuming process, but it is also anxiety producing, as a coach faces the unknown impact to their reputation and livelihood, regardless of the final determination.

Lack of awareness or alignment with personal beliefs and values can cause a coach’s behavior and actions to lead to an unethical situation. Some of the most commonly alleged breaches of our ICF Code of Ethics involve standards relating to Confidentiality/Privacy.

Confidentiality refers to the coach’s duty to not disclose any information obtained during the course of the coaching relationship without the express permission of the client. The right to confidentiality belongs to the client, not to you as a coach. Therefore, your client can set the boundaries of confidentiality; however, it is your obligation as the coach to ensure that these limits are clearly agreed upon in either a verbal or written agreement with the client and any sponsors. Remember that even with a clear agreement, there is still a conscious practice that needs to take place by you as the coach. Impulsive behavior, as well as insensitivity—lacking empathy and compassion for your client’s needs—can lead to unethical conduct including breach of confidentiality.

The following are actual examples of complaints filed against ICF Member coaches, all of which have included an alleged breach of confidentiality. As you will see, the situational conflicts are often complex and, in many cases, provoke an ethical dilemma.

Complaint A

Over a period of time, a client shared very intimate information with his coach about his life and his past relationships, including one with an ex-girlfriend who he had hoped to reconcile with. After several years of working with his coach, the coaching relationship ends abruptly. The client soon discovers that his coach has been having an affair with his ex-girlfriend, has fallen in love and plans to marry. The client filed a complaint against his coach for allegedly disclosing intimate details of his life with the coach’s now fiancée (client’s ex-girlfriend). How could this coach have prevented his client from filing a complaint that involved breach of confidentiality?

Complaint B

Several attempts were made by a coach trainer to remedy a situation whereby a student demonstrated unacceptable behavior in the classroom, impacting the safety and learning of the other participants. As this student’s enrollment in the program was sponsored by his company, he is eventually told that his employer will be notified of his removal from the training program. With a level of expectation for those employed by the company, the employer requests specific details of the student’s behavior. When a sponsor pays for the coach training, is it OK to share detailed information about the student’s behavior?

Complaint C

A client attempts to reach his coach on her cell phone, quickly realizing that the coach believed she had declined his call yet had inadvertently and unknowingly accepted the call. The client overheard his name being used in the context of dismissive and judgmental comments which included detailed information he had shared within the confidentially of the coaching relationship. The coach claimed her motivation to breach this confidentially was her attempt to gain insight on how to better support her client. How does this breach of confidentiality impact the foundational trust within a coach/client relationship?

Complaint D

A client filed a complaint against her coach, indicating that he was harassing her with cell phone texts of an inappropriate nature. The coach claimed someone had stolen his cell phone and it was not he who was sending the text messages. Although the coach denied any wrongdoing, he did nothing to deactivate the SIM card once he believed his phone was stolen. What was the coach’s responsibility to adequately protect his client’s contact information?

Additional Confidentiality Considerations:

  • As a coach, how do you ensure maintenance of confidentiality by your personal assistant, bookkeeper or computer guy?
  • What are the boundaries of confidentiality if a client shares information regarding illegal activity or a serious crime?
  • Where might you be tempted to “name drop” a recognizable client in order to gain credibility?
  • How do you safeguard your client files in a home office?
  • What steps do you take to set the limits of confidentiality with your client’s sponsor?
  • How do you breach confidentiality if your client threatens harm to themselves or someone else?
  • When administering assessment tools, how do you set the parameters for who gets to know what?
  • How do you protect your computer screen from others’ view?

As with any ethical situation, there is rarely a clear-cut answer. However, expanding your ethical curiosity can influence your ability to think, reflect and consciously avoid ethical blind spots. Ethical awareness around confidentiality is foundational to the trust between you and your client. Not only does ethical knowledge demonstrate your professional responsibility, but it can also serve to strengthen your confidence as a coach.

sue mcmahon headshot

Sue McMahon

Sue McMahon is a Professional Certified Coach, Board Certified Coach, and founder of Living from the Heart LLC. For 15 years, Sue has served in numerous roles involving ICF Ethics & Standards. She views her current position as Chair of the ICF Ethics Independent Review Board as a privilege and a continued opportunity to promote ethical coaching and professional integrity.  Her passion for coaching and ethics is second only to her greatest joy: spending time with her family and Labrador retriever, whether it’s being on an adventure or just hanging out. You can contact Sue at  

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Additionally, for the purpose of full disclosure and as a disclaimer of liability, this content was possibly generated using the assistance of an AI program. Its contents, either in whole or in part, have been reviewed and revised by a human. Nevertheless, the reader/user is responsible for verifying the information presented and should not rely upon this article or post as providing any specific professional advice or counsel. Its contents are provided “as is,” and ICF makes no representations or warranties as to its accuracy or completeness and to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law specifically disclaims any and all liability for any damages or injuries resulting from use of or reliance thereupon.

Comments (11)

  1. Shirley Schulz-Robinson says:

    Dear Sue, thank you for these case studies. Really food for reflection, the one which surprised me most was Case Study A, hard to understand how the coach did not realise that their behaviour breached the code of ethics. Case Study C, unfortunately , is a scenario that has arisen in professional standards complaints in other professions. For me these case studies illustrate the need for supervision.

  2. Shirley Schulz-Robinson says:

    Dear Sue thank you for these case studies which promote reflection on practice. The Case which surprised me most was Case Study A, I found it difficult to understand how the coach concerned did not recognise that they were behaving unethically. Case Study C unfortunately is one seen in professional complaints in other professions. Judgemental comments made within the hearing of clients at times with catastrophic outcomes. My take away first always check your phone is turned off, make sure you are in a private space before discussing a client and finally keep judgment thoughts about a client to yourself – except in supervision to unpack what it is about you that contributes to your perception.
    This case study brought to mind two stories one about a health professional who chose to discuss a client in a restaurant only to have a woman at the next table inform her that the client being discussed was her brother. The second relates to how small the coaching world can be – on more than one occasion a story is told and you find the tumblers falling into place and despite the coaches attempts to focus on specific issues the coaches identity is revealed. The world is small, confidentiality is precious and needs to be at the forefront of our minds. ,

  3. Ed Modell says:

    Thank you, Sue. It is very helpful to have concrete examples of what can lead to ethics problems.

  4. Abide Tekelioğlu says:

    Dear Sue,
    Your valuable case study is appreciated. Case A is unbelievable neither coaching ethics nor any other professional relations with clients. I will keep my eyes on your additional confidentiality conciderations as well.
    Best regards

  5. says:

    Sadly do no harm does not seem to have been a path these coaches have followed. Lucky for the clients their coaches were members of ICF and they had somewhere to take their concerns. What would’ve been the outcome for the client if these coaches were not members of ICF ? There are a lot of coaches out there who are not members of a professional body – who holds them to account? The above case studies are good reasons why we need to have an ICF and why we should be a member of ICF. For me it demostrates that I am accountable and that I meet some sort criteria to maintain my membership. In the counselling world in Australia if a counsellor is taken to court by a client the court takes a dim view of a professional who is not a member of a professional body (and if they are they are not maintaining their membership). This will happen in the coaching world.

  6. Sara says:

    Sue, thanks for taking time to offer this thought provoking look at ethics. As the profession matures, so must we, as professionals. Your piece – and the ongoing work of the IRB (Independent Review Board) for the ICF helps make that happen. I especially like the instructional nature of the ethics. They create the context for understanding the “why” as well as the “what.” After the code was revised a couple of years ago, I added new language in my coaching agreements around the legal limits of confidentiality and the difference between coaching and consulting. You help me become a better coach – thanks! Sara

  7. says:

    Can a Coaches client records and testimony be compelled in the case of a subpoena in a legal action?

  8. K.Leepile says:

    Case studies are real eye-openers. Highly appreciated.

  9. Rick Jones says:

    Thanks for sharing that coaches have to follow confidentiality with their relationships. People tell their coaches all kinds of things. So confidentiality can go a long way.

  10. Mel Parker says:

    Is information obtained during and interview based 360 feedback protected under coach client confidentiality? What if there is no coaching engagement but HR approaches you to do a interview based 360 on an executive. They want to inform the executive then provide the list of interviewers. Who has the right to that information HR, the executive, HR and the executive. For each can you provide the item # in the ICF Code of Ethics that the answer is based. Thanks Mel

  11. The above scenarios are very interesting and outline areas possible areas where a coach may have a conflict of interest and also unethical behaviour. These things happen in real life though regrettable.

    It is for this reason that an engagement contract is in place which define the parameters within which coaching should take place.

    A coach should always hold the highest standard of ethical behaviour and rather err on the side of caution. Being caught out in a compromised stage is a place where a service provider should not find themselves . Ultimately any misdoing on all parties will still need to be resolved in a professional manner preferably by a third party.
    It is good to keep these matters in mind in the client coach relationship.

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