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Ethics: From Compliance to Compass

By: Sam Magill January, 2018

From time to time, we must stop to ask, “Why should people care about ethics?”

Why should we care? After all, we ICF members sign the Code of Ethics when we obtain our credentials and renew them, right? (So do members of other coaching associations!) How often do we think about the Code after that? If a complaint is ever filed against us, we sure think about it! To be found in breach of the ICF Code of Ethics and be compelled to take some sort of remedial action is unnerving and, in all likelihood, very embarrassing. It can be career ending.

Part of the problem is that we tend to look at the Code as a set of things we should not do. Sometimes the Code elements seem like traffic rules: I hope I don’t get caught if I speed just a little thereby ruining my perfect driving record.

But isn’t there more to it than that? What if we shift our focus from not getting caught and not visibly violating the Code to an orientation of care for our clients, for our profession and for ourselves. In other words, to hold ethics as a compass rather than something to which we comply.

Let me explain my reference to a compass. Here in the Pacific Northwest of the US and the West Coast of Canada, I spend as much time as I can in my sea kayak. I love paddling in all kinds of water and weather, particularly enjoying the satisfaction of making it through rough water. Part of the joy, however, is simply getting home safely. Especially in fog, strong currents and confusing landscape, I rely on my compass to finish the trip safely. In the years since I started coaching in 1990, I’ve traveled some rough waters!

How can ethics become a compass? My former colleague and long-time friend, John Shuster, said one day when we were teaching coaching, “We must make ourselves worthy of our clients.” Worthy of our clients? My gosh, is what I am doing right now worthy of their trust? Is the relationship I have in this moment worthy of the trust they place in me, their need for a safe zone to explore their lives and work, their vulnerability and feeling of exposure when they acknowledge their current circumstances or fears about the future?

What we’re talking about then, is a much more advanced and subtle approach to ethical coaching which has been called Ethical Maturity. Michael Carroll and Elizabeth Shaw in Ethical Maturity for the Helping Professions describe ways of exploring our ethical frameworks and practices.

A few of the points I have learned from them are:

How can coaches move from simple compliance with the Code of Ethics to rich ethical reflection so that we are truly worthy of our clients? Pick a starting point. Consider for example, Coaching Competency 2: intimacy and trust.

Some starting questions are:

The key point is that ethical maturity - ethics as a compass for navigation in our work - is a never-ending process of reflection and adjustment in service of our clients, the profession and finally ourselves. Have you begun? When will you?

Ethical Maturity in the Helping Professions: Making Difficult Life and Work Decision. Michael Carroll and Elisabeth Shaw, Jessica Kingsley Publisher, London and Philadelphia. 2013

Janet Harvey, MCC

Janet Harvey, MCC ,CEO inviteCHANGE, has 30 years of executive and entrepreneurial experience with 12,000+ coaching hours, primarily in organizational and executive leadership engagements.