In a survey by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), “confidentiality” was revealed as a “key factor in every coaching engagement” (Mook & Turai-Petrauskiene, 2013). According to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), a core competency of a skillful coach is their ability to “demonstrate ethical practice” and “maintain confidentiality with client information per stakeholder agreements and pertinent laws.” In this Insight article, we review what coaching with confidentiality means, how coaches can develop confidential coaching practices, and what the benefits of confidential coaching are. While we recommend consulting with your legal professional on matters of confidentiality, we do present the following information as general advice and insight.
“In intelligence work, there are limits to the amount of information one can share. Confidentiality is essential” - Gijs de Vries
What is coaching with confidentiality?
Sue McMahon, chair of the ICF Ethics Independent Review Board, defines coaching confidentiality as “the coach’s duty to not disclose any information obtained during the course of the coaching relationship without the express permission of the client” (2018). She explains that coaching with confidentiality is the right of the client and the responsibility of the coach. It is also an obligation of the coach “to ensure that” the limits of coaching confidentiality are “clearly agreed upon in either a verbal or written agreement with the client and any sponsors” (McMahon, 2018). Sue’s statements are also supported by the Performance Coach University (Robbins, 2019).
Although confidentiality is a responsibility of the coach, it is important to note that not all information shared in an executive coaching session can remain confidential. The Performance Coach University explains that the governing “court may compel a coach to disclose about a client or even share the details of their session. A coach also has a legal obligation to disclose information about a client to a third party in certain circumstances, such as when the client engages in illegal behavior or when they are a danger to themselves or a third party or even national security” (2019). Because of the impact that confidentiality can have on an individual, a company, and/or a coach, it is important for coaches to clearly outline what information will remain confidential, their response to legal disclosure requests from government agencies, and what information does not apply to confidentiality agreements such as information regarding illegal activity (HIll, 2017). Furthermore, the Global Code of Ethics of the EMCC, states that coach “members will have a clear agreement with clients and sponsors about the conditions under which confidentiality will not be maintained” (EMCC, 2016).
“Confidentiality is an ancient and well-warranted social value.” - Kay Redfield Jamison
Examples of poor coaching confidentiality
Chair of the ICF Ethics IRB, Sue McMahon, shares the following examples of coaches who breached confidentiality.
Example 1: Mis-use of personal information
“Over a period of time, a client shared very intimate information with his coach about his life and his past relationships, including one with an ex-girlfriend who he had hoped to reconcile with. After several years of working with his coach, the coaching relationship ends abruptly. The client soon discovers that his coach has been having an affair with his ex-girlfriend, has fallen in love, and plans to marry. The client filed a complaint against his coach for allegedly disclosing intimate details of his life with the coach’s now-fiancée (client’s ex-girlfriend).”
Example 2: Unauthorized disclosure
“A client attempts to reach his coach on her cell phone, quickly realizing that the coach believed she had declined his call yet had inadvertently and unknowingly accepted the call. The client overheard his name being used in the context of dismissive and judgmental comments which included detailed information he had shared within the confidentially of the coaching relationship. The coach claimed her motivation to breach this confidentially was her attempt to gain insight on how to better support her client. “
Example 3: Failure to protect client contact information
“A client filed a complaint against her coach, indicating that he was harassing her with cell phone texts of an inappropriate nature. The coach claimed someone had stolen his cell phone and it was not he who was sending the text messages. Although the coach denied any wrongdoing, he did nothing to deactivate the SIM card once he believed his phone was stolen.”
“Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.” - Unknown
Example 4: Unintentional release of private information
Unfortunately, an example of poor coaching confidentiality practice is the unintentional release of private information. In a coaching situation such as a one-to-one session or peer group meeting, coaches and peer group members can become familiar with coachee businesses and personal relationships. Because of this, it is important to have an understood contract between all of those in a coaching situation. This contract should establish the norms for the coaching situation and if confidentiality is the expected and contracted norm, then no amount of disclosure, even subtle inference, is tolerable. Having this agreement protects not only the coachee and the coach from the damages of private information becoming public, but it also protects the coachee’s business, peer group members, and all of those involved in executive coaching scenarios.
Example 5: Trading or profiting from information learned in the coaching session
Investopedia defines insider trading as a situation where an individual with insider knowledge trades in a public company's stock with the benefit of “non-public, material information about that stock for any reason” (Ganti et al., 2021). This is wrong and illegal. Yet, it is too frequent charges are brought to insiders of all types for trading on non-public information obtained in private settings, like a coaching session. Coaches would do well to place a firewall around their investment portfolio to NOT purchase, own, or trade any stock for a company they coach unless the stock is owned and managed by a third party in a Trust.
Ways to incorporate coaching with confidentiality
Considering example 3 from above, it is important for coaches to not only display confidentiality with their words and conversations but also with their record keeping. This is also indicated in the EMCC Global Code of Ethics. The Global Code of Ethics states that EMCC “members will keep, store and dispose of all data and records of their client work including digital files and communications, in a manner that ensures confidentiality, security, and privacy, and complies with all relevant laws and agreements that exist in their client’s country regarding data protection and privacy” (2016).
The International Association for Coaching also states that coaches “are fundamentally prudent in the protection of the confidentiality rights of those with whom they work or consult” and that they “take logical precautions to protect client confidentiality in the event of the coach’s cessation of practice, incapacitation, or death” (IAC, 2011). Below are practical ways to improve coaching confidentiality practices. The following practices are meant only as suggestions, and we recommend that all coaches work with their legal advisors on fine-tuning confidentiality practices.
“Pay attention to how people talk about other people to you in private. Because that’s exactly how they talk about you to others.” - Unknown
Sue McMahon, chair of the ICF Ethics Independent Review Board, recommends that coaches acknowledge where they might “be tempted to ‘name drop’ a recognizable client to gain credibility” (2018). In conversations with potential clients, it is important to avoid “name-dropping” unless permitted to do so. There is a proverb that states, “a gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much” (Proverbs 20:19, Old Testament).
Name-dropping can portray an image of untrustworthiness or, at worst, gossip-like behaviors. Therefore, avoid name-dropping unless given permission, and when given permission be sure to share that you were allowed to disclose the information given.
“The more systems we secure, the more secure we all are.” - Jeh Johnson
Re-evaluate record keeping
Confidentiality extends beyond the words coaches say and into how they keep records of their coaching sessions. According to Stephen O’Connor of Advanced Data Systems Corporation, “a paper record is easily exposed, letting anyone see it, transcribe details, make a copy or even scan or fax the information to a third party. In contrast, electronic records can be protected with robust encryption methods to keep crucial patient information secure from prying eyes” (2020). While many coaches take notes during coaching sessions to reference previous goals and note future ones, it is important to keep these notes confidential. Furthermore, O’Connor also points out that “paper records can be altered in a manner that can be difficult to detect” (2020). In episode #1011 of the Arete Coach Podcast, Barry Goldberg shares that one way he maintains confidentiality in his coaching is by keeping his coaching session notes “cryptic” and “encrypted.” He also ensures that they are removed from his system “automatically three months after the coaching engagement.” By re-evaluating record keeping, coaches can ensure the accuracy of their session notes as well as their confidentiality.
“As a coach, I keep secrets for a living.” -Barry Goldberg, Arete Coach Podcast Episode #1011
Clearly communicate confidentiality standards
The best way to avoid confidentiality breaches is by clearly identifying and communicating confidentiality standards with clients before coaching. By clearly communicating what can and will remain confidential, as well as what cannot remain confidential, trust can continue to be built between the client and the coach. The IAC recommends that confidentiality conversations start “at the beginning of the professional relationship… and from then on as necessary” (2011).
Many executive coaches further protect their confidentiality standards by avoiding coaching business leaders that are competitors in the marketplace. For example, Barry Goldberg shared in episode Arete Coach Podcast episode #1011, “In my Vistage groups, not only do I not take competitors, I won't take people who are doing significant business with each other…”
Why is confidentiality important?
“Confidentiality is the essence of being trusted.” - Billy Graham
Research from The Journal of Institutional Economics has revealed that “contracts and trust complement one another” (McCannon et al., 2017). Furthermore, researchers Madireddy and Rufa state that “the practice of establishing a confidentiality agreement helps to build trust” (2021). Having a clear set of expectations and guidelines available to coaching clients regarding their guaranteed level of confidentiality, can help establish trust between a coach and a client. Furthermore, when that confidentiality is maintained, trust is also built.
Increased learning and openness
Trust is closely related to psychological safety. When clients learn that they can trust their coaches through defined and maintained confidentiality, they increase their feeling of psychological safety. According to Madireddy and Rufa, when students feel “psychologically safe, they are more likely to adopt behaviors that enhance learning, such as willingness to practice at the edge of their abilities, sharing their thought process, and discussing and learning from mistakes” (2021). These benefits also apply to the recipient of executive coaching. When clients feel psychologically safe, meaning that they can trust their coach and their coach’s claims to confidentiality, they are more likely to be open to discuss their challenges, thoughts, ideas, and goals. These benefits can offer a great return on investment for both the client and their business.
By coaching with confidentiality, you are coaching within the ethical guidelines of the ICF, IAC, and EMCC. Coaching with confidentiality shows that you care about the ethical guidelines associated with skillful coaching, that you take coaching seriously, that you conduct coaching in a professional matter, and that you want what is best for your clients and their businesses. This ethical confidentiality protects your clients and their businesses as well as your coaching career.
The main takeaway
Coaching with confidentiality is a key component of skillful executive coaching. Furthermore, coaching with confidentiality does not mean that all information shared is inherently confidential. For example, if a client shares information that is illegal or dangerous, confidentiality does not apply (Robbins, 2019). It is recommended that coaches establish the terms and conditions of their confidentiality at the start of a coaching relationship and that these terms and conditions are continually upheld by the coach (IAC, 2011). There are several ways that coaches can increase the confidentiality of their coaching sessions such as safe record-keeping and clear confidentiality agreements. Lastly, confidentiality creates trust which in turn increases openness and learning.
“No virtue is more universally accepted as a test of good character than trustworthiness.” - Harry Emerson Fosdick
EMCC. (2016). Download the Code | Global Code of Ethics. European Mentoring & Coaching Council. https://www.globalcodeofethics.org/download-the-code/.
Hill, M. (2017, December 22). Coaching & Mentoring Confidentiality. British School of Coaching. https://www.britishschoolofcoaching.com/coaching-mentoring-confidentiality/
Ganti, A., Anderson, S., & Rathburn, P. (2021, December 15). What Is Insider Trading? Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/i/insidertrading.asp.
IAC. (2011). Ethics. International Association of Coaching. https://certifiedcoach.org/about/ethics/.
ICF. (n.d.). The Gold Standard in Coaching | ICF - Core Competencies. International Coaching Federation. https://coachingfederation.org/core-competencies.
Jairek Robbins, J. (2019, June 5). Why is Confidentiality Important in Coaching? Become a Certified Performance Coach | Performance Coach University. https://www.performancecoachuniversity.com/why-is-confidentiality-important-in-coaching/.
Madireddy S, Rufa EP. Maintaining Confidentiality and Psychological Safety in Medical Simulation. [Updated 2021 May 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559259/.
McCannon, B. C., Asaad, C. T., & Wilson, M. (2017). Contracts and trust: complements or substitutes? Journal of Institutional Economics, 14(5), 811–832. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1744137417000522.
Mook, M., & Turai-Petrauskiene, L. (2013). Is Everything Confidential in a Coaching. EMCC. https://www.emccouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/119.pdf.
O’Connor, S. (2020, January 15). 5 Reasons Why Electronic Health Records are Better than Paper Records. Advanced Data Systems Corporation. https://www.adsc.com/blog/reasons-why-ehr-software-is-more-secure-than-paper-based-records#:%7E:text=Encryption%20Keeps%20Information%20Secure,information%20secure%20from%20prying%20eyes.
Sue McMahon, S. (2018, February 28). Private and Confidential. International Coaching Federation. https://coachingfederation.org/blog/private-and-confidential#:%7E:text=Confidentiality%20refers%20to%20the%20coach’s,express%20permission%20of%20the%20client.&text=Remember%20that%20even%20with%20a,by%20you%20as%20the%20coach.
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