Business coaches put in a lot of work to serve their clients well. From guiding their clients towards their goals, holding them accountable, to helping with breakthroughs, a coach's role is more complex than it seems at first glance. However, as a coach, your role extends beyond providing advice and strategies. There’s much more to it than simply helping your clients see growth. In fact, you have both legal and ethical responsibilities as a coach.
What’s the difference? Legal and ethical responsibilities as a coach are two different things. Legal responsibilities are things you must do, which are required by law. For business coaching, this covers topics like professional liability, contractual obligations,and intellectual property rights.
On the other hand, ethical guidelines are things youshoulddo, but no one will require of you. These include things like confidentiality, informed consent, competence and professionalism, conflicts of interest, boundaries, cultural sensitivity and inclusivity, and accurate representation. As you can see, there are often more ethical guidelines than there are legal requirements. Like we said, none of these are required, but are crucial if you’re looking to avoid harm, protect your clients’ well-being, and build trust and credibility as a coach.
When it comes to your legal responsibilities, there are three big ones you’ll need to be aware of: professional liability, contractual obligations, and intellectual property. All three of these are required by law, so definitely make sure you’re staying on top of each of these to protect your business.
Professional liability refers to the obligations that you have to provide your service in a competent and ethical manner. Common types of professional liability that we often think of are the potential harm that a doctor, lawyer, or engineer could cause if their actions are considered professionally negligent.
As a coach, you’ll want to ensure that you look into the potential legal liabilities that may arise if a client claims dissatisfaction or harm from your coaching advice or practices. If a client suffers harm or financial loss due to your negligence, they have the right to seek compensation through legal means
It’s important that you adhere to industry standards to prevent this from happening, but you might also want to consider professional liability insurance to cover your business in the case that you do need to cover the costs of legal defense and damages.
Your contract is there to protect you, but it’s also there to protect your clients. If your contract is vague and unclear, it’s more likely that you’ll end up in a situation where miscommunication happens and you find yourself needing to do more than expected for a client. To avoid this, be sure that your contract is explicitly clear on everything from scope of your practice, to fees, and more. If your contract is unclear, it’s much easier to misinterpret - leading to you being held to something legally that you may not have intended. And because your contract is clear, it will be simple to know whether or not you’ve completed your contractual obligations.
As a coach, your unique methods and materials are intellectual property that you’ve created. It’s likely that at some point, you’ll create materials and pass them on to a client for their own personal use. The last thing you would want to do is for said client to take your materials and attempt to pass them off as their own. The same goes for materials your client has created. It’s a legal obligation for you to protect the intellectual property of both of you.
However, what about materials created jointly in your sessions? Who owns those? That’s something to decide, and make sure you include in your contract. That way, once again, there’s legal protection for whoever owns said property.
Now that we’ve covered your legal responsibilities as a coach, let’s talk about those ethical guidelines. As mentioned before, there are even more ethical guidelines than there are legal responsibilities of coaches. While you may not be liable to the legal system, these guidelines could be argued to be even more important - especially when it comes to the health of your business.
An unethical coach is not going to find themselves in a thriving practice (at least for the long-haul), so it’s important that you consider the following and ensure that you are ethically caring for your clients in a variety of ways.
Surely this one comes as no surprise, but it’s important that your client’s information, confidences, and methods are kept confidential. Sharing what you learn from working with them violates a major ethical guideline and undermines your relationship and the work you’re doing together. In order to establish trust, and create a safe and open environment, keep your clients’ information private and confidential.
This may sound like something that’s only needed if you’re a doctor or psychologist, but actually, it applies to coaching as well. Essentially, you want to make sure that you are upfront and clear about your coaching methods and process, goals, and potential outcomes. That way, your clients are fully informed about what working with you is like and are able to make that choice in a fully aware capacity.
We are constantly learning as a society, and many jobs out there require ongoing education and training. Teachers, accountants, lawyers, even appraisers have requirements for continuing education. As a coach, you aren’t legally required to do continuing education, but if you want to continuously serve your clients well and improve your skills, it’s something you should consider adding to your personal responsibilities.
It’s extremely important that you commit to prioritize your clients best interests above all else. In fact, it’s your responsibility to identify any situations where personal or professional relationships, financial gain, or external pressures could compromise your objectivity about your clients’ welfare.
It’s also important that you maintain clear and appropriate boundaries with your clients. Not only should you respect any boundaries that your clients set (just as you want them to respect the boundaries that you set), but you should also be sure to not engage in activities that would blur the line between coach and client. This helps to ensure objectivity, trust, and overall effectiveness of the coaching process.
Another ethical responsibility of coaches is to ensure that you create an inclusive environment where clients of all backgrounds feel respected and valued, and where you are culturally sensitive as well as avoid biases and discriminatory behaviors.
Just like you want anyone who is a service provider for you to be open and honest about their qualifications, you’ll want to ensure you're doing the same for your own coaching business. In your marketing, be sure to accurately represent your qualifications, experience, and areas of expertise.
There you have it - the legal and ethical responsibilities you must uphold as a coach. Keep in mind that while this post is a great starting point for both the legal and ethical responsibilities of a coach, it’s merely a starting point. Be sure to continue researching exactly what other legal and ethical responsibilities may be unique to your own industry. And if you really want to take your legal protection to the next level, be sure to check out our library of contracts for coaches!
Amanda Warfield is a simplicity-focused content marketing and launch strategist, author of the book Chasing Simple Marketing, and host of Chasing Simple - a podcast to help creative entrepreneurs uncomplicate their marketing and business. She traded in her classroom lesson plans for speaking and educating creative entrepreneurs on sustainably fitting content marketing into their business, without it taking over their business - so that they have time to grow their business.
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