Ethics in Action: What Executive & Life Coaches need to think about!

We last spoke about why coaches need to bring conversations about ethics to the front burner; in particular we spoke about boundary management. So, what does ethics in action look like?

  • Clients can develop an unconscious wish for their coach to be the ideal parent, friend or partner they never had – one who would make their childhood wishes come true! The coach needs to find the balance between being completely aloof from the client (something that is not possible nor desirable) and trying to fulfill the client’s desire to be loved and accepted. This involves being clear about and maintaining a role boundary: What is it that I as a coach really do?
  • Both time and space have boundaries. Coaches need to define session time and limits, and establish guidelines for when their clients can access them. It is easy for coaches to extend sessions and to allow clients to call them as and when they are needed outside the contracted session limits (perhaps more in Asian cultures?). This is a boundary crossing (other than in exceptional situations) that may lead to dependence and dilution of the professional frame.
  • In term of space, coaching session done at home, or in a park, or in a car are at risk of boundary space violations as they can bring in an air of informality that may not be beneficial. What other risks can arise if these space violations continue?
  • Inability to ask for money or to collect it from a client is a boundary issue too. Coaching is professional work and not collecting agreed fees or letting debts mount is a boundary crossing (pro bono work is an exception naturally).
  • Self-disclosure is another area that needs to be thought through carefully. In many Asian cultures, the level of self-disclosure is quite different compared to what might be considered appropriate in a Western culture. Inappropriate self-disclosure runs the risk of shifting focus away from the client and on to the coach. It can also create a level of intimacy that may not be helpful for the coaching alliance.
  • The language a coach uses is another area that can create unnecessary familiarity or intimacy, thereby taking away from the professional frame of the relationship. While being appropriate to culture and context, the coach needs to be sensitive that the language used does move the relationship to a social friendship. Be even more alert in written communication (emails and sms) with your clients!

In addition to some of the above, many other areas can be at high risk for boundary crossing or violation in the coaching space (such as gift giving, visiting client’s home for family events, social engagements with a client…) Ethical practice for coaches starts with an awareness that these are flash points that can have unintended consequences despite the coach having good intentions at the start. Perhaps, other than the mandate to avoid any form of boundary violation that involves sexual misconduct, coaches need to think about the range and impact within which they choose to operate. Professional coaching associations such as the ICF have a code of ethics that provide a useful frame for the coaching alliance. The challenge is to apply this frame in our practice. Reflection on our practice, conversations with peers, and coaching supervision are necessary elements of ethical practice for coaches.


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

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1 Response to Ethics in Action: What Executive & Life Coaches need to think about!

  1. Rachel Gojer says:

    Good observations on the cultural differences in boundaries


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