Coaching and confidentiality
The secret of a good coaching relationship is openness and honesty. This means the freedom to share ideas, the freedom to make mistakes, and the freedom to fail knowing that the only consequence of failure is the support to stand up and try again.
And the essential foundation to these freedoms? Trust in the confidentiality of the coaching relationship.
As the International Coaching Federation’s Code of Ethics defines it:
“Confidentiality”—protection of any information obtained around the coaching engagement unless consent to release is given.
Not dissimilar to doctor-patient confidentiality (or therapist, if you prefer) this confidentiality allows coaching discussions to cover the ground they need to without the coachee worrying that their fears, opinions or development will shortly be reported to their manager, or be the subject of office gossip. This is why it is essential (and ethical) to start every new coaching relationship with a contracting process; a crucial part of which is agreeing some ground rules around confidentiality. That word ‘agree’ is important. It means that the ‘rules’ won’t be exactly the same for every relationship.
The confidentiality discussion
That said, from the coach’s point of view, it’s better (essential?) if those ground rules fit with the abovementioned ICF Code of Ethics, which has the following mentions of confidentiality:
- Explain and ensure that…[the] coaching Client(s) and Sponsor(s) understand… the nature and limits of confidentiality…
- Maintain the strictest levels of confidentiality with all parties as agreed upon.
- Have a clear understanding with both Clients and Sponsors or interested parties about the conditions under which information will not be kept confidential (e.g., illegal activity, if required by law, pursuant to valid court order or subpoena; imminent or likely risk of danger to self or to others; etc.). Where I reasonably believe one of the above circumstances is applicable, I may need to inform appropriate authorities.
- When working as an Internal Coach, manage conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest with my coaching Clients and Sponsor(s) through coaching agreement(s) and ongoing dialogue. This should include addressing organizational roles, responsibilities, relationships, records, confidentiality and other reporting requirements.
- Maintain, store and dispose of any records, including electronic files and communications, created during my professional interactions in a manner that promotes confidentiality, security and privacy and complies with any applicable laws and agreements.
Apart from anything else, the Code highlights the fact that coach and coachee are not the only interested parties in a coaching relationship. “Sponsor” may refer to the coachee’s line manager or supervisor and they have a role in the coaching process, supporting the coachee’s application of their learning to the ‘real world’ of work. They will also want to factor in coaching results to formal processes for performance management and assessment. The sponsor is often the representative of the organisation (the employer) that is funding the coaching, and legitimately expecting to see some results from it.
However, not only do they have an interest in the results of the coaching, they also have a responsibility to respect it (and confidentiality) as part of the coaching agreement.
When should confidentiality be breached?
A good confidentiality agreement (preferably in writing) will state the circumstances under which confidentiality may be breached. Usually these are related to illegal activity or are risk-based assessments. Again, to quote the ICF:
(e.g., illegal activity, if required by law, pursuant to valid court order or subpoena; imminent or likely risk of danger to self or to others; etc.)
Put simply, information about criminal (or potentially criminal) activity – e.g. fraud, sexual harassment, assault… – is information that the coach cannot keep to themselves. As a general rule, anything that could leave the employer organisation open to some form of legal liability or default complicity cannot be kept confidential, and it’s only fair that the coachee (and the sponsor) understands this up front.
However, accidents happen. Between the coach, the coachee, the sponsor/manager, and any other colleagues who have some ‘contact’ with the coaching relationship, sometimes there are too many people to keep a secret and some detail or other of the coaching process is disclosed. The coach’s role is to manage the breach. Quick action (maybe just as simple as telling those who ‘know’ that what they know is confidential information and not to be shared further) can prevent damage (either to individuals or to the coaching process). And of course, whoever is responsible should acknowledge that responsibility and make the appropriate apologies.
So much for the “Don’t do it again.” Messages. But depending on the circumstances – or depending on the confidential detail that is now in a more public domain – further action may be needed; probably by the sponsor or other manager in a position to carry out damage control. And there is always the possibility that the breach of confidence is such that the coaching relationship cannot continue as is.
But assuming relationship can continue, the coach and coachee need to discuss and agree what measures should be put in place to prevent further breaches of confidentiality before they go any further.
If you’re interested in how coaching could work in practice in your organisation, including regarding matters of confidentiality, check out our coaching services; or get in touch on 01582 463461 – we’re here to help!