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The Ethics Column

Julie Allan

Happily, conversations and debates abound concerning inter-related areas including ethics, competence, excellent and poor practice, obligations under the law, professional regulation, outcomes and return-on-investment evidence and so forth. All relate in some way to the issue of professionalism, and what constitutes a profession and professional behaviour. And in this we have a topic with a long history, from times when professionals were expected to behave like the gentlemen that they were, conforming with the prevalent morays of their gender and social class at the time.

Over time our social landscape has changed and, along with it, access to life in a ‘profession’. More professions have been formally defined or recognised. Furthermore, behaviour that people would term professional is often expected from individuals who may not formally belong to a particular profession; we may care less that they are members of the profession than that they behave ‘professionally’ in our subjective view of that term.

Would you say you are, for example, a professional coach or professional coaching psychologist? What do you recognise in yourself or do others recognise in you for the term to be appropriate? What is the impact for you and for your clients of this professionalism? Maybe you don’t find it relevant? The Professional Associations Research Network in its third publication on professional ethics (PARN, 2007, p.25) defines professions as:

‘Occupations where there is:

  • An education and/or experience criteria for gaining membership into the profession and a system for maintaining standards and quality of service.
  • A code of conduct or ethical guidance for professional practice.
  • A commitment to continuing professional development.
  • An organisation that maintains a register of the members of the profession.’

They note that there may be different extents of these and that various associations can be ‘in progress’ -having some but not all of these in place -and further that whether an occupation is a profession or not varies between countries as there’s no natural or universal grouping of activities into the same ‘sets’.

They forward a view that ethical competence -stated as the ability to work at an occupation in a manner as defined by professional ethical codes of conduct but not limited to these codes in detail - is central to trustworthy practice. A professional should be able to be relied upon by a client to have relevant knowledge and skills and to work out what to do or refrain from doing to provide benefit. It’s about ‘how’, or the manner of doing, as well as about ‘what’, the content. They further note (p.69) that professionals such as lawyers or engineers may be asked to advise on such issues as the limits of the law, or ‘acceptable risk’, and that from an ethically competent perspective this would go beyond factual knowledge and expertise to ‘take into account the conflicting pressures and interests of the client and other stakeholders [italics added]. In their view, this should be noted in professional codes and often is not.

Working with individuals to support their continuing development, which most (all?) coaches do in some form, raises a wide range of issues around competence generally - including ethical competence. In common with most coaching-related association codes, the British Psychological Society’s code to which SGCP members are asked to subscribe, requires practitioners to recognise and remain within their competence limits. So it is incumbent upon us to have some means by which we would know when our limit is approaching. And what of the ability to take into account conflicting pressures including other stakeholders? How does this translate if you have particular specialisms or areas of operation -to what extent would your ability to be either competent or ethical be challenged by your (lack of) knowledge of working hours directives or duty of care legislation, for example, or by taking a view that another stakeholder in coaching the operations director of a multinational is the child of a mine worker in their supply chain, or another stakeholder in coaching a young mother returning to work is the partner who’d rather she didn’t.

Clearly our capacity to understand the ‘contract’ we are making with a client, in its fullest context, and to watch how it may change or need to change over time, is an issue both of competence and ethics. To do ‘proper contracting’ at the start is generally regarded as good and ethical practice … but maybe our ethical action of the day would be to decide the wordings and practices that will clarify with our client that our initial contract may not be the final word (and how we’d notice the need for change).

‘It is not what we profess but what we practice that gives us integrity.’
Francis Bacon

Julie Allan C Psychol
Irving Allan,
44 Main Street,
Northants NN14 3BX.
E-mail: Julie@irvingallan.com
E-mail: Julie.allan@lemontree.f2s.com

British Psychological Society Ethics Committee (2009). Code of ethics and conduct. Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Friedman, A. (2007). Ethical Competence and Professional Associations. Professional Associations Research Network (PARN).

What would you do if …?

You are contacted by a commercial organisation wanting to get to know some coaches to add to their supplier resource. They want you to provide a set of three sessions to one of their managers so they can assess if you are the right kind of coach for them. They would like you to provide this for expenses only. What is your response?

Some considerations
There are many stakeholders you may perceive in this situation. They include and are likely not limited to: you, your business or associates, fellow practitioners, the organisational ‘commissioning’ individual and their wider department, their line manager, the managers taking part in this scheme, the wider organisation.

There are a variety of situational factors that may impact your choices. They include and are undoubtedly not limited to: your view on the business of the organisation and whether you are interested to serve this business, your view on whether you have sufficient work currently, your view on whether the proposed scheme will demonstrate your value to the organisation in their view or allow you to assess it in your own view, your career stage and needs in relation to breadth of experience, your view on whether the proposed scheme will deliver what the organisation hopes it will and your knowledge/ability to discuss alternatives, your view on money and fees for your time.

Imagine you accept.
You tell a colleague about this. He has declined because he doesn’t think that it’s appropriate to provide a valuable service for free, and doing so devalues his services and those of fellow practitioners. What is your response?

Imagine you accept.
You tell a colleague about this. He says he explained to the organisation the drawbacks he could see in their assessment process. You somewhat agree, but they didn’t, and didn’t continue with their interest in him. What is your response?

Imagine you decline.
Six months later a colleague tells you that not only do they have work with this organisation but it’s been going so well that she has been recommended by them to two other organisations and she is really enjoying the work. What is your response?

This example is a provocation for reflective practice and does not constitute advice. The information expressed in these examples is not the official view of the Special Group in Coaching Psychology, or the British Psychological Society.


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