Understanding ethics and how ethical principles are promoted in coaching psychology
Ethics is a system of moral principles which provide guidance about the decisions we make and whether our acts can be justified (Wicks & Freeman, 1998, p. 123). Professional bodies set out to provide ethical guidance through the provision of ethical codes and practices. The provision and adherence to these codes is intended to act as a way of promoting trust in professional practice (Dyer, 1985, p. 73). Professional ethical beliefs develop over time and are shaped by many factors, including philosophy, societal expectations, and professional practices (Rosenkoetter and Milstead, 2010, p. 138).
The British Psychological Society’s (BPS) latest version of its Code of Ethics and Conduct (British Psychological Society, 2018) is based on “The British eclectic tradition” (British Psychological Society, 2009, p. 4) and highlights four primary ethical principles: respect, competence, responsibility, and integrity (Table 10.1). Each principle is described by a set of values which guides ethical reasoning, decision-making, and behaviour. Under each principle, issues and considerations are highlighted which psychologists are required to be aware of in their work. The aim of the Code is to guide the decision-making of all psychologists but “cannot and does not provide the answer to every ethical decision a Psychologist may face” (British Psychological Society, 2018, p. 8).
Other documents of the BPS are intended to be used alongside this Code: Code of Human Research Ethics (British Psychological Society, 2014) and Practice Guidelines (British Psychological Society, 2017). The BPS does not provide a specific code for coaching psychologists; the published codes are generally for psychologists. However, in this way, common norms are established, and coaching psychologists can be expected to work to the same high ethical standards as all psychologists. The HCPC also published “Standards of Proficiency” (Health and Care Professions Council, 2015) for all practitioner psychologists with specific requirements for psychologists with protected titles. The SGCP also provides a “Standards Framework for
Table 10.1 The primary ethical principles of the BPS (for full details, see BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct, 2018)
Respect for the dignity of persons and peoples. Respect for dignity recognises the inherent worth of all human beings, regardless of perceived or real differences in social status, ethnic origin, gender, capacities, or any other such group-based characteristic. This inherent worth means that all human beings are worthy of equal moral consideration.
Competence refers to their ability to provide those specific services to a requisite professional standard. A psychologist should not provide professional services that are outside their areas of knowledge, skill, training and experience.
Psychologists must accept appropriate responsibility for what is within their power, control or management. Awareness of responsibility ensures that the trust of others is not abused, the power of influence is properly managed and that duty towards others is always paramount.
Acting with integrity includes being honest, truthful, accurate and consistent in one’s actions, words, decisions, methods and outcomes. It requires setting self-interest to one side and being objective and open to challenge in one’s behaviour in a professional context.
Coaching Psychology” (Special Group in Coaching Psychology, 2008) which outlines what is required for being awarded registration as a coaching psychologist.
In the BPS Practice Guidelines (British Psychological Society, 2017), the importance of professional judgement is stressed just as it is in the Code of Ethics and Conduct:
No guidance can replace the need for psychologists to use their own professional judgement. Effective practice means exercising this professional judgement in a defensible way that does not put clients or the public at risk, or undermine, or call into question the reputation of the profession as a whole, (p. 3)
Deciding upon an ethical course of action is seen by the BPS as something difficult to proscribe or endorse; it requires professional judgement. This is a theme which is reflected in the coaching literature. Duffy and Passmore (2010) highlight, for example, how codes may not cover all important concerns, be overly prescriptive, vary between professional bodies, and how principles can be self-contradictory (p. 143). Similarly, Diochon and Nizet (2015) argue that ethical codes can lack relevance, have major shortcomings, and can even be an obstacle to the ethics of the coach. The limitations of ethical codes call for a need for coaches to build “ethical maturity” (Carroll,
2011), or what lordanou and Williams (2017) describe as “ethical capabilities”, developed through gaining awareness of “one’s principles and values, embracing ethical dilemmas, making courageous ethical choices, and reflecting on them” (p. 696).
Van Nieuwerburgh (2017, p. 191) presents a list of “ethical moments of choice” that coaches might encounter (Table 10.2). The range of ethical dilemmas a coach is likely to face will be much more extensive than this, but the list provides an indication of some ethical issues coaches might encounter.
Integral to ethics is the provision of an effective service. In the BPS Practice Guidelines (British Psychological Society, 2017), psychologists are urged to “distinguish the nature and quality of the evidence underpinning any knowledge or techniques being applied”. They are also asked to be mindful of psychological processes which might impact their evaluation of evidence. As a result of their extensive training in psychology, coaching psychologists are expected to draw on evidence-based practice as a key element of a competency framework which is underpinned by the Scientist-practitioner Model. Beyond the UK, the 1SCP also has a Code of Ethics and Guide to Coaching Psychology Practice (International Society for Coaching Psychology, 2019b).
Global activity in the education and practice of coaching psychology has been summarised by O'Riordan and Palmer (2019). They reported that since 2002, 21 widely recognised coaching psychology groups have been set up across the world (e.g., Australia, Hungary, Italy, Korea, Spain, Sweden, South Africa). Some of the key initiatives of these professional bodies and groups include a focus upon accreditation/certification routes for coaching psychologists (and coaching psychology supervisors), publications, and offering professional development opportunities through conferences and events. O'Riordan and Palmer (2019) observed that the codes of ethics and good practice of nationally recognised psychology bodies also inform the work of coaching psychologists who are members of those groups in particular countries or regions.
Table 10.2 Ethical moments of choice
The coach seeks to exceed the agreed number of coaching sessions
The coach is offered additional work in a coachee’s organization
The coach develops a physical attraction to the coachee
The coachee claims they are being bullied
The coach cannot accept the moral position of the coachee
The coachee contravenes the principle of equal opportunity