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Coaching & Mentoring Confidentiality

Confidentiality is the essence of being trusted” Billy Graham

Contracting is one of the key skills that a coach needs to master as it is the foundation for building trust, confidence and rapport with the client and creating an effective coaching relationship.

One of the key elements for contracting in coaching and mentoring is dealing with the issue of confidentiality. When one considers confidentiality is something shared “in confidence” the criticality of it to trust and rapport becomes obvious. If that confidence is not managed effectively, the impact on future trust and rapport will be devastating.

It is essential that the contract sets out expectations for confidentiality. These should be agreed with all parties involved in the coaching or mentoring relationship: the organisation and the coachee/mentee. Avoid using “legalese” – use clear, simple language and check that everyone understands and agrees with the contents. It should also be borne in mind that the contents will need to be adapted to make bespoke to each coaching or mentoring engagement.

Beware of promising “total” or “absolute” confidentiality – for example “everything we discuss will be completely confidential.” Complete confidentiality can never be guaranteed because there may be legal, organisational or wellbeing reasons that require disclosure to be made. Ensure that your confidentiality “pitch” reflects those elements, for example, I deal with it by giving the following explanation: “What we discuss will be confidential unless it needs to be disclosed by law or because of organisational guidelines or because it may provide a risk to yourself or to another. In the unlikely event that this situation may arise, we will discuss what actions we need to take.”

Some of the things to consider covering in contracting about confidentiality:
• What will be shared?
• With whom?
• How?
• When?
• What will not be shared?
• What are the organisational guidelines?
• What are the requirements of the professional coaching body (AC, EMCC, ISQC, ICF) you are a member of?
• Feedback about the coachee or mentee- the organisation may require a summary about the coachee or mentee- how? what?
• Feedback from others about the coachee or mentee provided on the basis of anonymity. Agree in advance how anonymously the feedback will be reported: unidentified, identification by category of person (work group, level, etc.) or by specific name.

The Executive Coaching Handbook (a FREE resource) also suggests “Ensure that all coaching notes, assessments and reports are either destroyed at the end of the engagement or that there is a plan to store information in a secure manner. Coaching documents do not have the confidentiality provisions that doctors, therapists or lawyers have.” I would also suggest that as part of the contracting you need to agree with the organisation what will happen with coaching notes. Your own reflective coaching log or journal, provided it contains no details about the individual client, should not be liable to disclosure.

Breaking Confidentiality
On the, hopefully rare, occasions when a coach is faced with a situation where confidentiality has to be broken because of something that has arisen in a session, what does the coach or mentor do?

Remember the mantra of Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army, a famous BBC programme, – “Don’t Panic” – First take a breath and pause. Clarify with the client to check that you heard correctly and confirm whether this is a matter that needs to be disclosed. Then
Confront the Elephant in the room – make sure that you pause the session and highlight to the client that a confidentiality issue has arisen and needs to be addressed.
Clarify, Check & Confirm – discuss the issue with the client. Ask questions to help both of you clarify and understand whether confidentiality needs to be breached. Questions such as What? Who? When? How? are useful here. That clarification may mean that disclosure is not required after all.
Consent – If disclosure needs to be made, seek to obtain the client’s consent to this. This is where a good contract comes into its own as you can refer the client back to the confidentiality clause. Also using “consequence” questions can be useful, for example: “what may happen if this information is not revealed?” “how may that affect your colleagues?” “what might happen if the information comes to light and it becomes apparent that you knew and had done nothing?” Explore if the client needs support in making the disclosure- who can it be made to? Would your presence support?
Avoid Ostrich Mentality – although the client may have buried their head in the sand to avoid having to deal with the issue, as the coach or mentor you must beware of becoming complicit in that behaviour. If disclosure MUST be made, be resilient and ensure that you act professionally and ethically. Do not be afraid to go back and raise the issue again if you think that the initial agreed actions have not fully resolved matters.
Non-Consent – If the client does not consent, be clear to them that the contracting agreement and/or professional ethical code requires that you make that disclosure- explore how that might impact on the client. Explore the reasons for the client’s reluctance – is it an organisational issue that is influencing that reticence, e.g. bullying culture? Think about who in the organisation you can make the disclosure to. It may be useful, where appropriate, to involve the client in shaping what will be said.
Laser Point Focus Not Floodlight Focus – when disclosure has to be made, be as focused as possible on what information needs to be disclosed and ensure that you are only revealing what is proportionate and necessary – hence “laser point” focus rather than a wide “floodlight focus” or even a “spotlight” focus which may also be larger than necessary.
How – agree, or inform, how the information will be disclosed, what form and when. Ensure that client has sufficient time to plan to prepare.
Review Relationship – once the issue of disclosure is resolved, it is essential that the relationship is reviewed. The client may still be willing to continue with the coaching or mentoring. If so, how do you feel as the coach/mentor? Is the issue going to impact on your ability to be non-judgmental? What values or beliefs may be impacted (yours and the clients)? Is the coaching or mentoring relationship still going to be effective?
Supervision – consider whether supervision should be sought to assist you in reviewing what has occurred and exploring this.

“In a world where everyone shows and tells everything…. I value privacy and discretion.” Sonya Teclai

 

Martin Hill, LLB(Hons), AMAC, FInstLM, FISQC, BSC Senior Tutor