Ethics in Coaching: How To Run a Business Without Losing Sleep at Night

ethics in coaching

What does it mean to run an “ethical” coaching business?

If this question keeps you up at night, you’re definitely not alone.

Ethics in coaching can definitely raise some hairs. And if you’ve been wondering how to navigate these waters, then keep reading!

Let’s dig deeper into how you can effectively apply coaching ethics by learning about:

  • The importance of ethics in coaching
  • International Codes of Ethics for Coaches
  • How to practice ethical coaching

The Importance of Ethics in Coaching

It’s no secret that the bedrock of a successful coaching relationship with every client is a strong ethical foundation. The significance and impact these principles have on both coaches and their clients cannot be overstated.

This is especially true if you’re coaching someone on one of the three most important aspects of their lives:

  • Health
  • Wealth
  • Relationships

But why are ethics so important? Let’s dive into it.

ethics in coaching

Maintaining trust through confidentiality

In every professional relationship, trust is key. 

It becomes even more crucial when you’re dealing with personal matters. And as a coach, I probably don’t have to tell you there’ll be plenty of personal matters to deal with. 

If you can uphold confidentiality, you’re showing yourself worthy of the trust a client instilled in you when they sent you their hard-earned money for your program.

Having that trust between yourself and a client improves the quality of the coaching sessions. That’s because it creates an environment where clients feel secure sharing intimate details about their lives. 

This, in turn, paves the way for meaningful progress in achieving their desired goals!

Acknowledging professional boundaries

Coaching involves navigating complex human emotions. And because it gets complex, it can definitely challenge the boundaries of professionalism

For example, it can get easy to feel like a client is becoming your best friend! In that context, imagine how easy it would be to accidentally take over a coaching session and trauma dumping on a client.

Ethically speaking, that’s not the best way to cultivate a relationship with a client paying for that session.

That’s just one example of how close, trusting relationships can make boundaries blurry at best. 

Fostering client autonomy

As an ethically responsible life coach, a key aspect is promoting client autonomy throughout your time with them. 

Your client should always be the central decision-maker when it comes to shaping the outcomes of your joint efforts, whether directly or indirectly related to their goals.

In other words:

You don’t get to decide what a client should aim for. If you don’t agree with someone’s values or goals, it’s up to you not to work with them.

Remember: Ethical behavior isn’t just about avoiding bad experiences. It serves as the foundation for building a solid reputation that can withstand scrutiny, even under the most strict standards.

International Codes of Ethics for Coaches

The ICF, a worldwide organization devoted to upholding standards in the coaching profession, has developed a code of ethics for coaches.

Does this mean you have to follow this particular code of ethics?

No, not necessarily. But it’s a good place to start if you’re unsure where to dip your toes in the world of coaching ethics. 

The ICF Code of Ethics is a fundamental document for establishing ethical conduct and upholding high standards within the industry.

In essence, each section contains specific principles that coaches can use to guide their own ethical journeys:

  • Responsibility to clients
  • Responsibility to practice and performance
  • Responsibility to professionalism
  • Responsibility to society

Of course, there are also other international bodies, like the European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC), providing additional coaching codes of ethics. 

How to Practice Ethical Coaching

So how do you ensure that your coaching business runs in an ethical way? Let’s go into the specifics.

1. Clarify your own ethical code

Your first step should always be sticking closely with established standards like the one I’ve described above.

If these standards don’t fit your personal ethics or feel incomplete, don’t be afraid to ask yourself how you can change things up.

Clarify what ethics means to you so that you can pinpoint exactly what yours are. Once you do this, you can adapt your core messaging and copywriting to attract the type of coaching clients who agree with your values and ethics.

2. Listen to your gut

Part of why it can be difficult to explain ethics in coaching is due to how sometimes… things just feel wrong.

But you can’t always pinpoint why.

If you find yourself in one of these situations, tune into what your gut is telling you.

For example, and without going into too much detail (seeing as this is a post about ethics, duh), here’s one situation where my gut told me to say no to a potential client:

Someone reached out to me because they needed help writing sales emails. However, when I reviewed their sales materials, the client refused to reveal too many details about their offer.

This made me feel like they did indeed have something to hide. And I didn’t feel good writing copy to help sell something I didn’t have complete context for.

I can’t tell you how to make these types of calls. All I can say is that if something feels off, you’re probably right.

One book I recommend everybody read to help recognize red flags is Hey Hun by Emily Lynn Paulson. This book outlines how certain cultures and business practices perpetuate cult-like ideologies and white supremacy in America.

While it won’t save you from making judgement calls, it can help broaden your perspective of how the online marketing world operates. 

3. Accept feedback from colleagues and clients (and not just those who look like you)

To excel as a coach, you must be open-minded enough for feedback – both positive and negative.

And that means seeking opinions from those who don’t look like you or have a different background.

For instance, if you’re a white woman like me, don’t assume to know enough about the experiences of BIPOC people to speak on their behalf.

If a Black woman were to tell me a video I made was insensitive, it’s up to me to open my mind and fully hear the feedback so I can learn from my mistake. It’s not up to me to decide whether I offended her or not.

This can be difficult work if you’ve never done this before. I suggest picking up books like How To Be An Antiracist or Me and White Supremacy.

Practice Ethical Coaching to Maintain a Reputable Coaching Business

Ethics in coaching serve as the compass that guides your way. And although organizations like the ICF have set specific standards, there’s no cut-and-dry code of ethics that every single coach must follow.

This means it’s up to you to study and question what you stand for. 

And no one can do that work for you.

Don’t forget that everyone makes mistakes. But the way in which you deal with those mistakes is what can define you not only as a coach but as a person!

ethics in coaching

By Charlene Boutin
Charlene is an email marketing and content strategy coach for small business owners and freelancers. Over the past 5 years, she has helped and coached 50+ small business owners to increase their traffic with blog content and grow their email subscribers.
August 14, 2023

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