How to Handle Split Loyalties as a Coach

Door half openI received this question from an Executive Coach recently:

I am coaching a CIO (Chief Information Officer) and he told me he is biding his time before he leaves the organization. The annual bonuses come out in February and he is staying until then to ensure he gets his. I feel uncomfortable knowing that he has a plan to leave as my role is to ensure I add value to the organization as well as the individual. I can see why he wants to leave and, if I am honest, think this is the right decision for him given his circumstances. However, I am paid by the organization and feel a responsibility towards them too.

This is an ethical coaching dilemma that every Executive Coach faces from time to time in their career. On the one hand, the person in front of you is your ‘client’ and yet it is the organization who is footing the bill and who has a reasonable expectation that coaching is a means of assisting individuals add greater value to the organization while benefiting personally and professionally. When faced with such a dilemma your loyalties are tested. Both are your clients, one your coaching client and the other your business client. You want the best for each party concerned. In addition, your business client is the one likely to provide you with future work and so it is not unreasonable that you are sensitive to this fact too.

This type of situation becomes further compounded when you believe (even if you have not said so to your client) that it would be in your coaching client’s best interests if he did leave. You may also believe that it would also be in the best interests of the organization too in the longer term.

One way of assisting you deal with this situation before it arises is to ensure that any discussion you have with a corporate sponsor when positioning coaching highlights that such a situation might occur. Alongside explaining the parameters of confidentiality, feedback structures and associated confidentiality boundaries together with working with the individual’s manager, comes an explanation that on rare occasions a client may disclose that s/he is thinking of leaving the organization. A discussion can then take place which identifies and considers the implications of keeping an unhappy and disengaged employee and why this is not of benefit to the organization. You can reassure the corporate sponsor that you will do whatever you can to ensure that coaching attempts to retain an employee if at all possible and that such situations are rare but realistically do happen.

This means you will be able to elicit the organization’s views about how they would want this type of situation to be dealt with. In addition, you will also be clear about what is expected and what structures you need to set in place.

However, even if you do this and both the organization and you believe it would not be a problem, you also have to consider the timing of such client disclosure. For example, supposing your client was a key person in a crucial project, what impact would your client leaving have on the organization?

To whom do you personally feel most loyal and what do you see as your obligation to the organization should this be the case? You need to think about your responsibilities in relation to your confidentiality contract but also the impact your client leaving in this way would have at this particular time?

Another way of dealing with this dilemma would be to talk through the issues with your coaching client. You could share your own professional dilemma and sense of torn loyalty and obligation to the organization and the concerns this raises for you as his coach. Although coaching is not based on your opinions but on the needs of your client and their sponsoring organization, it would be naive to think that your views can be kept totally separate and that if you found yourself feeling inauthentic this would not show up in some way.

For example, perhaps by discussing your concerns with your client you may find some way of mitigating the situation. There may perhaps be a way of alerting the organization that your client would find acceptable. If the organization has strong views about such departures and you have included this information into the contracting stage with your coaching client, you could refer back to what was said and agreed.

When facing an ethical dilemma there is not always an easy or clear solution to the problem you face. However, engaging in ethical thinking helps you position what you could do and how you could do it in the best way possible. Talking to your coaching supervisor about such a situation certainly helps share the load and gives you the benefit of third party input.

Thankfully, this is not a common situation but it is one that can cause a coach a considerable amount of worry when it does occur. Most coaches have good relationships with their coaching clients and sponsoring organizations therefore, providing the original contracting is clear, this can help ease the discussions and smooth the way for the actions that need to take place.

If you have a professional coaching dilemma and need some support, perhaps Coaching Supervision would help.