In my last blog, I discussed core values and ethical standards for executive coaching. In this blog, I will review several ethical conflicts that can arise in a coaching relationship. I will also offer a way to manage these conflicts to either avoid or minimize their consequences.
A coach sometimes hears of or experiences behavior that is either unethical or illegal. I once had a coachee who was paid as a professional to provide services to a medical facility. He was considering the addition of a new service to his client and charging an additional fee. The ethical problem was that he was already being paid by the medical facility, and the new service could be perceived as an enhancement to services for which he was already being compensated. The new service enhancement would definitely benefit his client company, but as a service provider, was there a potential conflict? He did not see this as a conflict of interest, but, as a result of the dialogue with me, his coach, he decided to be transparent with his proposal to his client. In this case, coaching helped to make the coachee aware that there was another perspective that needed to be considered. This led to the coachee being more open about his intentions rather than unilaterally changing the compensation arrangement.
One sticky situation I have found myself in is when I am coaching competitors or coaching parties on two different sides of a dispute. When coaching competitors, I am always up front about who I am coaching. If it is a problem for either party, I will not engage with the prospective coaching client. If it becomes a problem after both competitors are engaged, I will disengage from the most recent coaching relationship. In this situation, trust is more important than continuing to coach both competitors. In one case, the cousin of one CEO went into a similar line of business to that of another CEO I was coaching. The two CEOs knew each other, and when it became apparent that a relative of one CEO could be competing with the other CEO, I decided to end the coaching relationship with the CEO who had the least tenure.
Serving two coachees who are in a dispute is rare, but I have experienced this twice. My decision was not to coach both individuals but instead to coach only the one who had seniority in my coaching. I also referred the other coachee to another coach. Could I have worked with both coachees? Probably, and I may have been able to help them resolve their differences. I know of coaches who would not see this as a conflict but rather as an opportunity to shift roles in order to help resolve a problem while maintaining both coachees as clients. I believe this is an ethical conflict. A coach is not a mediator or a consultant. In my opinion, mediation or consultation are not services that a coach should undertake. This is a situation where a referral to a qualified professional would be more appropriate.
There are situations where a coachee is having a problem with the sponsor. If the coach is also coaching the sponsor, this may be an opportunity to explore the relationship and the openness between executives. I often found myself asking questions that relate to an existing problem without revealing the source of the questions. In one case, an executive I was coaching felt he was underpaid for his position as COO. His CEO, whom I was also coaching, was aware of the disparity in compensation but was more concerned about cash flow than the feelings of his COO. If the COO were to leave the company, it would have been a terrible event for the company. My role as a coach is to make sure the CEO is aware of the consequences of his actions. In this case, it was a matter of how the CEO handled the compensation issue.
I had been involved in dialogue that had led to the hiring of the COO. As part of my coaching with the CEO, we had ongoing conversations about the COO’s performance. It was clear to the CEO that the COO had brought value to the company. As a result, it was quite natural for me to raise questions about the COO’s retention without revealing specific conversations that I had with him. After a very frank discussion about retention of the COO, the CEO opened the compensation dialogue with the COO, charting out an equitable compensation agreement.
I have provided several ethical conflicts that can arise from coaching. It is important for the coach to always be aware of his or her role in these situations and to continue to provide an open and candid relationship while helping the coachee to accomplish meaningful goals. Trust is clearly the main factor that gives the coach the latitude to engage the coachee in honest, forthright dialogue.