First-Class Coach: How far should a coach protect confidentiality

Should I tell someone about the dubious circumstances of an employee I'm coaching?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I've trained as an internal coach for my organisation and have started doing sessions for junior staff and middle management. But one of the employees I'm coaching has told me about personal circumstances that make me feel that they shouldn't be in a position of power in the firm. Do I talk to her boss or maintain the confidentiality I promised her?

A: How you resolve your situation depends on how serious the issue is. It may be a problem you can work through together, or you may have to refer your client to an external source of help: for psychotherapy, debt counselling or healthcare, for example. You may be able to persuade your client to be open about the issue with her boss. If not, and you feel unable to keep matters confidential between you, the professional code says you must end the coaching relationship. There are exceptions to the confidentiality rule - say, a risk of self-harm or harm to others - where you'll certainly need to involve external professionals.

In the case of alcoholism, drug misuse or criminality, procedures in the company's terms of employment may automatically override the tenets of the coaching contract, and failure to report these circumstances could adversely affect the career of the coach, who may be perceived as colluding in the misdemeanour.

Confidentiality is the cornerstone of coaching. Without it there can be no trust and, without trust, none of the openness that leads to genuine insight and preparedness to make the changes that will improve effectiveness at work and personal happiness.

Paradoxically, transparency is also a main element in the architecture of good coaching. It comes at the start of the coaching relationship, when expectations must be made explicit. This is a three-way process, embracing the expectations of the sponsoring organisation, the person to be coached, and the coach. Covert agendas on any side of the relationship will compromise the efficacy of the coaching and there's likely to be distrust, disappointment and even damage.

Take, for example, a business that finds a manager's behaviour unacceptable but hasn't had the courage to tell him so. The coach is asked to focus on improving the way the person operates. But, being oblivious to the real purpose of the coaching, the individual sees no reason to modify the way he relates to his colleagues and is puzzled by the coach's efforts to support him in making the changes required to remove barriers to his progress. None of the three parties is likely be satisfied with the outcome, and time, money and opportunity will have been wasted.

At this initial stage of the process, it's possible for the coach to clarify goals and bring to the surface unspoken desires and issues. If the goals are too ambitious or in some way unsuitable, he or she can negotiate more appropriate expectations and set markers that will let all three parties know whether progress is being made in the desired direction. But once these goals have been established, the content of the coaching must be confidential between coach and client, apart from checking on progress at agreed intervals, using the agreed metrics.

But confidentiality can be a tough promise to keep, especially for an internal coach. Almost inevitably, there will be times when loyalties conflict, as in this case. Coaches are paid a salary to support and encourage good performance, to help promote business success. If they find serious weaknesses, a lack of commitment or an intention to leave the organisation in an employee, they're bound to feel that the business will be best served by alerting senior management to potential problems. Yet if they do so, they will feed the common suspicion that internal coaches are management spies. It's a tough position to find yourself in, and it's situations like this that make proper supervision from an experienced, external professional so important.

It can be helpful to talk through the problem with someone who's knowledgeable but has no vested interest in a specific outcome. Being able to do this helps you gain perspective and review options to decide the best course of action, both for the individual and for the organisation. It will also help you to come to terms with the situation personally, and to make sure the experience doesn't damage your confidence as a coach. After all, coaches are human too. They need coaching from time to time, just like anybody else.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, e-mail:

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