why a code of ethics can’t help with ethical dilemmas

16th November 2018

As a coaching supervisor, I always have an eye on ethical dimensions in my supervisee’s work. It is rather like a goalkeeper in a football match who, even when their side is dominating play, has to be constantly ready to leap in to action when needed.

Ethics concerns itself with behaviour and so, to that extent, ethics is always at play. But in practical terms, we really mean something a bit more specific and I would suggest we’re looking at two things:

The underlying set of norms that guide our profession – the bottom line, if you like.

Moments of dilemma in which the answer is neither clear nor absolute.

The Association for Coaching and the European Mentoring and Coaching Council have recently issued a joint Code of Ethics and, on a call, in which a number of supervisors were exploring the new code, the webinar lead described how, in a survey which asked what coaches used when facing an ethical dilemma, not one respondent said they would use their professional body’s code of ethics. Zero! Most people, said they would follow their intuition, use common sense, or talk to their supervisor.

There was a ripple of startled laughter and a few despairing shakes of the head as the supervisors on the call registered this stark fact.

It was a natural reaction. There was something ludicrous, and seemingly wrong, about signing up to a professional body but then not using its code of conduct when facing an ethical dilemma.

But is that right?

Here’s the thing. A code of ethics deals almost exclusively with the first of the two bullets above: the underlying set of norms that guide our profession. It sets out what is expected of us in upholding our professional standards and, if you need to actively look at the code of ethics, there’s a good chance you have not yet got to grips with the core values and behaviours that guide the profession you represent. These should be explored in full in coach training as a minimum and they should be held in mind through the normative and formative functions of supervision.

But I am not at all convinced that a code of ethics provides a useful framework for specific ethical dilemmas if you have already grasped, and committed to upholding, the core professional requirements. The ethical dilemmas that emerge in practice are generally not eased or clarified by the code of ethics unless you are patently not following core behaviours and need an Ethics 101 reminder!

It is at the point when an ethical issue presents itself that you are confronted by the second of the bullets – moments of dilemma in which the answer is neither clear nor absolute.

Where do the answers and decisions come from at these moments? Well, not from the code of ethics. They are dilemmas precisely because they don’t neatly map on to the code, not because the coach has forgotten the core standards and behaviours. Perhaps, the dilemma throws up a conflict between one part of the code and another or, more likely, it is not even touched upon because it is a dilemma that goes beyond the setting down of foundational behaviours.

That’s why I am encouraged that coaches aren’t turning to their code of ethics at this point. They are demonstrating, I hope, the ethical maturity that Michael Carroll talks about. Ethics is not black and white. Indeed, from the earliest days of written consideration of ethics, particularly in the work of Aristotle, it has been recognised that we can’t pin down “right behaviour” like an “if/then” roadmap to the correct answer. 10/10 – well done! Rather, we must call upon our own moral standpoint to make decisions we can stand by.

If a coach’s decision is contravening a code of ethics stipulation, then the coach is either in blatant disregard of the standards of the profession or they have not yet fully understood and embodied these expectations and behaviours.

But where a dilemma presents itself to a coach who understands their responsibilities, then the code of ethics is likely to offer little in the way of guidance. Instead, this is precisely where intuition, gut, common sense, supervision, peer conversations and other inter and intra relational activities that allow us to access our moral compass and tacit knowledge is indeed the right and, probably, only way forward in a complex and ambiguous world.

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