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A code of ethics for consultants, trainers, and coaches

In November of last year, Dan Mezick initiated a discussion about the need for a formal code of ethics for “agile” coaches. He was especially interested in the idea that coaches should explicitly avoid creating a dependent relationship with clients. After all, the main goal of a coach is to help the coachee become self-sufficient and independent. A subsequent article on InfoQ, “Should Agile Coaches Have a Code of Ethics?”, spurred further discussion by additional people.

I found the discussion compelling, and subsequently Dan and I had a few email exchanges about the topic. Although the original discussion centered just on coaching services, and specifically “agile” coaching services, it struck me that the prohibition on making clients dependent on their external helpers applied equally to consulting and training services.

I decided to revisit the code of ethics that I have been using. Although not a member, I learned about the code of ethics of the Institute of Management Consultants (USA) in the mid-1980s. It seemed to be relevant to the kind of work I was doing at the time, and have done most of the time since then. On re-reading the IMC code closely, I found it lacking in a few respects that I hadn’t noticed way back in the 1980s. For one thing, the sentences aren’t crafted very well. For another, some of the statements are redundant. Thirdly, the subdivisions in the list seem unnecessary. Finally, the list doesn’t address issues of social consciousness that have become important in our society since the time it was written.

I decided to come up with a new code of ethics to guide my own work, taking into consideration the good points in the IMC code, the insights generated in the online discussion and email exchanges, and a few additional points that I consider important. The result was a list of 15 standards and four preferences for client engagements. Standards are inviolate; preferences will inform some of the details of working agreements with clients. I’m curious to know what others think of the result.

Ethical Standards

We adhere rigorously to these ethical standards.

  1. We will accept assignments consistent with our experience and competence. We will not claim expertise we do not possess in order to win a contract. When we need the services of a partner or subcontractor to fulfill the responsibilities of an engagement, we will disclose this fact in advance to the client.
  2. When we discover in the course of an engagement that we cannot fulfill the agreed-upon responsibilities, we will offer to withdraw or to change the terms of the engagement such that the expectations and fees are commensurate with our abilities.
  3. We will exercise independent judgment and objectivity when offering recommendations or advice to clients.
  4. We will disclose in advance any relationships that might be perceived as a conflict of interest or that might raise questions about our independence or objectivity.
  5. We will not accept payments, gifts, or any other benefits in exchange for recommending a product or service to a client.
  6. We will agree in advance with clients the basis and terms for fees and expenses, the scope and objectives of the engagement, and the mechanisms and frequency for assessing and measuring progress.
  7. We will protect the privacy and integrity of client information, and exercise due diligence to prevent its disclosure to unauthorized persons, except as provided for in item 8 below.
  8. We will report illegal activity to the appropriate authorities if we discover such activity in the course of our work.
  9. We will not use proprietary materials or methods of other consultants without their prior written permission.
  10. We will not solicit any employee of a client to consider changing employment without the prior written permission of the client.
  11. We will strive to enable clients to carry new ideas and techniques forward independently, and avoid creating a dependent relationship with them.
  12. We will consider the environmental and social impact of business decisions and practice environmental stewardship to the extent our line of work affords the opportunity to do so.
  13. We will not work on behalf of a government, company, or other organization that supports or enables activities contrary to fundamental human rights.
  14. We will not work in or travel through locales where our personnel would be at risk of physical harm above and beyond the risks of normal life.
  15. We expect and require that any subcontractors who represent us adhere to the same code of ethics as our associates.

Ethics-based Preferences

When we have an opportunity to work with a client who violates any of the provisions in this section, we will explore with them the possibility of using the engagement as a vehicle to effect positive change in their organization.

  1. We prefer to work with clients, partners, and suppliers who share our goal of leaving the world in better condition than we found it.
  2. We prefer to work with clients who agree to match our contribution of a portion of our fee to a mutually-agreeable charitable cause.
  3. We prefer to work with clients, partners, and suppliers who have not supported legislation, social initiatives, or business practices that restrict freedom or that treat people unjustly. We assess this based on behavior, not solely on formal, written policies.
  4. We prefer to avoid working with clients who have a history of late payment, partial payment, or non-payment of fees, expenses, or other monies due, whether to us or to any other consultants, contract workers, trainers, coaches, or striking, laid-off or retired employees.

10 thoughts on “A code of ethics for consultants, trainers, and coaches

  1. It’s all right to have general guidelines but we need to keep in mind that what is acceptable for one culture isn’t necessarily for another. I’ve seen too many do-gooders mess up existing problems simply because they did not bother to think about the unintended secondary consequences of their statements and actions. A few years ago there was a hue and cry about child labor in the carpet industry in Bangladesh. And, rightly so as we don’t like kids being treated in the manner they were. So we decided to penalize Bangladesh and stopped importing and purchasing carpets made there. We accomplished what we set out to but also drove hundreds to women into prostitution so that their families could put food on the table. Not bothering to find out and understanding the other’s viewpoint was the chief problem here.

    A more relevant example in our case might be a situation where we two coaches in two different camps. Coach A says you should coach for no more than 3 months at a client else the client may become dependent; Coach B says 3 months is a joke as you can barely coach a team or two in that time frame and make any meaningful impact beyond those teams. Both are right in what they believe and in their logic at arriving at their conclusions. The problem instead lies in where the two are starting from — Coach A, in this example, thinks of coaching primarily as team level coaching; Coach B is looking at things more holistically and considers team coaching as just one aspect of what a coach does. A good coaching and facilitating guideline is to listen first and respond later; what I see more often than not is the reverse — people speaking even before giving the other party a chance of making their case.

  2. “We … drove hundreds to women into prostitution”

    Well, maybe you did, but “we” didn’t.

    “Coach A says you should coach for no more than 3 months at a client else the client may become dependent; Coach B says 3 months is a joke as you can barely coach a team or two in that time frame…”

    How is that an ethical issue?

    1. I used the word “we” to denote people in the west trying to impose their morality on others (and also for the crowd that didn’t protest and went along).

      As for the 2nd example, Coach A is of course going to claim that spending more than 3 months at the client’s is not ethical — isn’t it introducing dependence?

      1. Alex,

        You’re so far off-topic it’s ridiculous. This isn’t about people in the West imposing blah blah blah. This is about consultants, trainers, and coaches who work with clients in IT management, software development, and software delivery. That’s all. If you’re talking about some village in Bangladesh where there’s literally no choice but child slavery or prostitution to feed one’s family, then I rather doubt they will be engaging any IT consultants soon.

        Regarding Coach A and Coach B, both would be compliant with standard #11. They simply have different ideas about how to live up to the standard. The ethical standards I wrote don’t specify a length of time. It isn’t just a question of how long the engagement goes; it’s a question of how the coach guides the client personnel. There’s no ethical conflict.

        If you continue to turn this away from the topic of professional ethics in order to pontificate about Western do-gooders, I’ll just have to remove your comments. Besides being off-topic, that kind of nonsense is categorically stupid.

  3. […] of the comments on “A code of ethics for consultants, trainers, and coaches” suggest that the statements in the list may not be self-explanatory. Some of thes points might be […]

  4. […] one of the most bizarre misunderstandings of the code of ethics I proposed the other day, a reader suggested that by adopting a professional code of ethics, a […]

  5. Dave, thank you very much for publishing this.
    I’d like to have a conversation about how this could be specifically adapted to agile coaching in particular.
    Although I basically agree with all of the standards, I think #11 should be on top (I’d phrase it as “make yourself dispensable as quickly as possible” or use the Nanny McPhee quote “As long as you need me, but do not want me, I must stay. As soon as you want me, but no longer need me, I have to go.”)
    I’d also add a commitment to personal growth to the list, and include agile values and lean principles…
    Last weekend at the AgileCoachCamp Norway, we started to create a definition of AgileCoaching which so far includes two guiding principles, and some of your standards would make good additions to that list.
    I captured it here:
    I’d like to know what you think:-)
    take care

    1. Hi Olaf,

      I looked at the notes from Norway, and I like what you guys came up with. The only problem I saw was that you have two pictures of Jurgen and only one of me, and the picture of me isn’t very flattering. That’s clearly wrong.

      I think we have a slightly different goal or purpose in mind. I’m seeking a set of ethical standards that can apply to coaching, and also to consulting and training. I offer all three types of services, and often provide all of them in the same engagement. I also want standards that aren’t tied to specific schools of thought, approaches, or methods, such as “agile” or “lean.” That would limit my ability to embrace new ideas.

      Somewhere in the world, someone you and I never heard of might be inventing something better than “agile” or “lean” right now. When I learn about it, I don’t want my own statement of ethics to prevent me from using it! Choosing to use “agile” methods on some particular project isn’t a question of ethics, it’s just a question of approach.

      Analogous to the notion of “separation of concerns” in software design, I want a clear separation between ethical standards and specific activities or specific methods. You could think of it as the difference between a constitution and a specific statute. A constitution should be general enough that it doesn’t require frequent revision as the society evolves. When a new statute is proposed, the standard against which its validity is judged is the constitution. A statement of professional ethics should function in a similar way. To do so, it must be independent of methods.

      In contrast, it seems as if you and the group that met in Norway are seeking a set of standards that is narrowly targeted to “agile” coaching only. I suspect you will end up with a mixture of statements that truly pertain to professional ethics and statements that pertain to specific aspects of “agile” or “lean” thinking. If that is what you need, then the end result will be different from mine. Not right or wrong, just different.

      One point I like a lot is that you want coaches to commit to continuously improving their own knowledge and skills. I think it would be good to include something like that in my list, too. It is arguably connected with professional ethics and doesn’t imply anything about specific methods. I’ll think about it and add a statement. Thanks for the suggestion!


    2. Olaf, one other thing I forgot to mention. You suggest that #11 should be moved to the top of the list. Actually, the list is not prioritized. Every statement carries equal weight. I wonder if the present emphasis on #11 simply reflects the fact that it is a current issue under discussion by the community at the moment. In the larger scheme of things, is it objectively more important than the other statements?

      1. Good question, Dave.
        Probably it isn’t and you spotted the reason why it’s more important to me currently:-)
        I like your generic approach, being method-agnostic, yet I do think that with a growing number of agile coaches in the world there should be some things we agree upon specifically.
        My intention is not to join your idea and ours, I just see an opportunity to cross-pollinate—which apparently works…
        Thanks for the quick reply.
        take care

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