Boundary Crossings and Boundary Violations in the Coaching Alliance

Ethics and ethical practice is not a topic that is discussed in-depth and length amongst coaches. Because the coaching profession is not (yet??) regulated by governmental and professional bodies, there is little pressure – or fear – for coaches to seriously think about or adhere to good ethical practice compared to professions such as counseling or therapy where ethical violations can lead to loss of licence to practice and legal consequences. This does not mean that coaches are not ethical – it’s just a topic that is not on the front burner for us. However, with the rapid growth of the coaching profession, it is time for us to start understanding, sharing and establishing good ethical practices.

One such issue in ethical practice is managing boundaries – this includes knowing what is a boundary crossing, boundary violation and how to be sensitive to managing boundaries with our clients. Boundaries can be understood as a frame or envelope around the coach-client relationship that defines the characteristics of the relationship. These characteristics include: role of the coach, time, place and space, money, gifts, services and related matters, clothing, language, self-disclosure and related matters, and physical contact.

Boundary crossings are minor deviations that neither harm nor exploit the client and may even advance the coaching alliance or relationship for example, sending or receiving gifts on special occasions, or attending an event that is important for the client (wedding, child’s birthday, funeral…) On the other hand, boundary violations harm the client through some form of exploitation – psychological, sexual, financial, or emotional – for example, asking clients to do personal work or errands, borrowing money from a client, inappropriate sexual touch and so on. In boundary violations the coach’s needs, wishes, and goals are placed ahead of the client’s. 

The impact of a boundary crossing needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis to take into account the context and situation-specific facts to assess the possible harmfulness of a crossing for a particular client. The guidelines around boundary issues are:

(i) it is the coach – and not the client – who must abide by the appropriate professional code of ethics and legal framework;

(ii) only the coach is held liable for the ethical or judicial transgression and so it is his/her duty from initiating or being a party to a boundary violation;

(iii) the goal is to prevent harm and not to blame the client or excuse the coach.

The following practices can help a coach minimise risk of ethical violation: maintain a professional conduct; debrief any risky incident or behavior with the client as a learning event; document the incident in detail; and finally, seek consultation and/or supervision around the incident or behavior. Being part of a professional coaching association such as   (www.coachfederation.org) is helpful because it helps our clients know that we subscribe to, and are bound by a professional code of ethics. In addition, working with a coaching supervisor is another self-check and risk management practice that can help a coach avoid boundary violation.

References

Gutheil, T. G. (2008). Boundary concerns in clinical practice: The distinction between boundary crossing and boundary violation. Psychiatric Times, April. Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com website:

Gutheil, T. G. (2011). A ‘pocket guide’ to avoiding the most common boundary ptifalls. Psychiatric Times, 28(2), 15.

Gutheil, T. G., & Gabbard, G. O. (1993). The concept of boundaries in clinical practice: Theoretical and risk-managment dimensions. American Journal of Psychiatry, 150, 188-196.

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