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The Ethical Compatibility Between Social Work and Coaching
By Elizabeth Lasky, PhD, MSW, LCSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 1 P. 22

A closer examination of the two professions reveals a connection between their codes of ethics.

Does the coaching profession align itself with social work values and ethics? The professions have similarities that demonstrate ethical compatibility. Comparing the two side by side prompts many questions, including the following:

• What are the similarities and differences between social work and coaching?
• Can a social worker be a coach?
• Can a social worker use coaching as a modality?
• Does a social worker need licensure to act as a coach?
• Who should regulate coaching practices as a social worker?

While these are good questions that deserve exploration, this article focuses on the ethical congruence of social work and coaching. It explores the core values, ethics, and principles of social work, as articulated by the NASW Code of Ethics, and compares them with similar values, ethics, and principles of coaching as delineated by the International Coach Federation (ICF). Particular focus is given to the social work values of service, and the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.

The social work and coaching professions share similar visions (see the accompanying table). This compatibility may help establish parameters around social work and coaching, especially as the latter becomes more mainstream and utilized by social workers.

The Connection Between Social Work and Coaching
Social work is a value-based profession. The NASW Code of Ethics aims to protect clients by holding social workers accountable to the profession for their actions. In such a regulated profession, it is crucial that all modalities used by licensed social workers, such as coaching, fit within this code of values and ethics.

Coaching is growing as a profession in the United States. As a result, more coaches are becoming formally trained in coaching modalities. The ICF defines coaching as, “Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential” (ICF, 2015).

In the 2016 ICF Global Coaches Survey, the ICF adopted a “coaching continuum” to account for the ways that coaches apply coaching skills and modalities. At the time, there were 53,300 professional coaches worldwide, an increase from 47,500 in 2012 and 2,100 in 1999 (Losch et al., 2016). It would make sense that as the number of registered coaches grows, so does the number of coaches who are also therapists.

The connection between social work and coaching is rooted in the idea that as more helping professionals claim to be coaches and utilize coaching modalities, more social workers will do the same. There is strong potential for social work practice to benefit from coaching modalities. Does the connection between coaching and social work also encompass ethics?

Ethical Compatibility
Social work and coaching both have adopted ethical standards of practice. Ethical congruence between the two professions can be seen through an examination of four NASW social work values: service, the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. Although coaching is not primarily a values-based profession, the ICF holds a comparable code of ethics that is clear about what professional values it expects its members to uphold.

The ICF maintains a list of 11 core competencies that fall into four separate categories. The first category, “Setting the Foundation,” includes the first two competencies of Meeting Ethical Guidelines and Professional Standards and Establishing a Coaching Agreement. The second category, “Cocreating a Relationship,” features the competencies Establishing Trust and Intimacy With a Client and Establishing Coaching Presence.

The third section, “Communicating Effectively,” has three connected competencies: Active Listening, Powerful Questioning, and Direct Communication. The final section, “Facilitating Learning,” has four competencies: Creating Awareness, Designing Actions, Planning and Goal Setting, and Managing Progress and Accountability.

Both social work and coaching have parallels in the definition of practice, the conceptualization of a client, and standards for competent practice. While social workers rely on the NASW Code of Ethics to guide ethical practice, coaches rely on the ICF Code of Ethics for ethical guidelines. Both codes are generally accepted as the gold standard in ethical practice in each profession.

Upon comparison of these two codes of ethics, there are no overt conflicts. Social workers who employ coaching practices are not in direct violation of the NASW Code of Ethics. The guiding principles of social work and coaching line up substantially in their general governing principles.

Service and Coaching
In the NASW Code of Ethics, the value of service is identified as the importance of elevating service to others above self-interest. Along the same lines, the ICF Code of Ethics defines the act of coaching as service-driven and client-centered, specifically “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

As a foundation to service, both professions view clients as people who inherently have strengths to cope with difficulties and the potential to create new patterns.

Social work and coaching focus on strengths-based approaches to service. Social workers often conceptualize clients through a strengths-based perspective with an understanding that the client has innate strengths and skills to cope and be successful. Coaching is built on a goal-oriented approach with a similar view of clients.

A pivotal part of coaching is viewing the client as someone with innate potential (Rao, 2013). A coach works with a client to identify a vision and to take action to reach the identified goal. While a social worker may use a strengths-based approach in a process-oriented method, the coach facilitates the process of service so that the client can experience concrete results and a shift in mindset (Edelson, 2010).

Importance of Human Relationships and Coaching
In both social work and coaching, practitioners work with clients to increase their sense of self-efficacy and power in the service of taking action to improve their lives (González-Prendes & Brisebois, 2012). Social workers’ value of self-determination matches the client-directed style found in coaching. Coaching mirrors social work in its perception of the client and the work brought into the therapeutic or coaching relationship. This is congruent with NASW core values and guiding principles. Both coaching and social work value the right of the individual to guide the work.

Nonjudgment of a client is an important part of human relationships. This paradigm is shared by both social work and coaching. Coaching places an emphasis on partnering with clients to help them achieve goals, something that is also a tenet of good social work practice.

Coaching’s goal-oriented problem-solving approach emphasizes client self-determination. Through coaching, clients can identify their strengths, reframe negative thoughts, and take action that leads to change in their lives (Biswas-Diener, 2009). Through the coaching relationship, clients discover that they possess the resources they need to make lasting change. Coaching maintains clients’ dignity and worth and emphasizes that people are whole, complete, and resourceful (Edelson, 2010).

Social work and coaching both promote acceptance of the client and the client’s self-driven work. In fact, coaching fits seamlessly with the social work value of respecting the dignity and worth of the individual. Strength and empowerment are considered to be at the core of social work practice (González-Prendes & Brisebois, 2012). As an avenue for human development and change, coaching draws on these principles as well. Coaches facilitate clients’ wishes to create change in their thinking and subsequently in their lives (Rao, 2013).

Cognitive behavioral theory illustrates the similarities between coaching and social work. Therapists view clients as possessing the strength to create change in their own lives. In social work, the process is facilitated by a therapist; the client is empowered to problem solve and create change (González-Prendes & Brisebois, 2012).

Similarly, coaching is an approach that places a premium on empowerment. As clients begin to feel empowered and change their mindset and beliefs, shifts in actions and behavior follow. To be of service, the therapist or coach helps clients increase their sense of efficacy and power so that actions can be taken to make improvements (González-Prendes & Brisebois, 2012). From a human relationships perspective, a collaboration between client and coach, or client and social worker, is paramount to a successful intervention.

Integrity and Coaching
Social workers are mandated to act in an honest and responsible way that promotes ethical practice. Similarly, the ICF Code of Ethics requires credentialed coaches to commit to taking “appropriate action with the coach, trainer, or coach mentor and/or will contact ICF to address any ethics violation or possible breach as soon as I become aware, whether it involves me or others.”

Conducting oneself in a trustworthy and fair way is a guiding principle that directs practice and goodness of character. Social workers are expected to behave in a trustworthy manner; similar expectations are found in the coaching code of ethics.

Competence and Coaching
According to NASW, social workers must “practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise.” At its core, the tenet of competency ensures that social workers are trained adequately when they perform duties of social work. Similarly, coaching places a strong emphasis on competence, training, and continuing education. There is an expectation set forward by the ICF “to be competent and integrate ICF Core Competencies effectively in their work.”

The 2016 ICF Global Coaching Study found that coaches place high value on training and credentialing, with 99% of participants receiving some form of specific coaching training, and 89% engaging in training that was accredited/approved by a coaching organization.

Each coach holding an accreditation from the ICF has been successfully trained and can demonstrate the 11 core competencies of coaching. Currently, coaching is not regulated by state licensure boards, but there are several levels of accreditation that are regulated by the ICF.

Social workers who claim to coach clients or claim to be a coach when they do not have a certificate in coaching or an ICF credential may ultimately be in violation of the NASW Code of Ethics. As social workers are required to be competent in their area of practice, coaches are similarly obligated to define their coaching qualifications to clients. ICF states that a coach must “accurately identify [their] coaching qualifications, expertise, experience, training, certifications, and ICF credentials.”

For social workers interested in employing coaching practices, falsely masquerading as a coach may be a violation of the NASW Code of Ethics, which states that social workers must be competent in order to practice ethically. According to the ICF, coaching students may practice as a coach if they declare they are a student. Clarity of roles becomes essential to both coaching and social work ethical practice.

Regulation of Practice
The conversation of regulation of practice is an important one. What does this mean for social workers who are also trained coaches? What is the ethical standard for social workers who coach? Who is the ultimate governing body of a social worker who coaches? Is it the NASW or the ICF?

One of the biggest differences between social work and coaching is the external government regulation of practice (Reardon, 2016). The social work license, governed by state licensing boards, limits social work practice for the purpose of clearly defining best practice and protecting clients. There are regulation standards that have been developed and set by the ICF, but coaching does not follow the same defined limitation of scope of practice through government regulation. There needs to be a discussion about how to maintain the values and ethics of social work practice as practitioners implement coaching strategies.

Because of legal boundaries and limitations on the scope of social work practice, integrating coaching into social work practice must be carefully executed. Good practice standards dictate that social work be practiced with a license. At the same time, good coaching practice standards are dictated by the ICF’s ethical guidelines. Ethical practice for social workers should include simultaneous state licensure in social work along with a certification and credentials in coaching regulated by the ICF.

There also should be discussion about providing competent coaching services. Obeying the NASW Code of Ethics may dictate that social workers who are practicing coaching must be purposefully trained in coaching interventions in order to adhere to the value of competence. This may also include accountability through supervision.

A further question of ethics emerges: While a social worker may use coaching skills in treatment, is it ethical to consider this “coaching?” There is currently no license protecting coaching, but there is a global accreditation process. If a licensed social worker is also accredited by the ICF, are they considered to be a coach? Are they able to advertise and market these services? This topic has profound ethical implications and should be researched and explored further.

Social workers who call themselves coaches or who employ coaching techniques in their work should have both a license in social work and a credential from the ICF in order to uphold the values and ethics of both the NASW and the ICF. A social worker who has a coaching certificate from a school accredited by the ICF or who holds a coaching credential from the ICF may call themselves a coach.

There are models for regulating coaching practice within social work that can be borrowed from evidence-based modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). There are practitioners who are trained to practice in CBT and DBT, and workers who are certified to teach and train these practitioners. As coaching becomes more broadly evidence based, a train-the-trainer model may narrow and strengthen the scope of practice for social workers using coaching with their clients as indicated.

The presence of coaching in the areas of self-help and psychology indicates that there is a growing potential for social work to be enriched by the modality of coaching. As coaching grows against the backdrop of social work, so does the potential for confusion.

There is a gap in the attention given to coaching in educational settings for social workers. Caspi (2005) recommends organizing task forces to work with the NASW and state licensure boards to explore the role and use of coaching and to develop guidelines and standards for practice. Coaching should be discussed and researched in all educational settings for social workers, who must continue to contribute to scholarship through ongoing research and publications.

Social work and coaching have many similarities. A comparative examination of the values and principles of both social work and coaching highlights the ethical congruence of the two professions. Connections drawn between their ethics and principles highlight how the core values of service, the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence have roots in both social work and coaching.

A focus on integrity and competence indicates that coaches and social workers must be trained and credentialed according to the guidelines of their respective professions. However, similarities in focus and values indicate that they may provide complementary benefits to clients. There is room for social workers and coaches alike to explore how each discipline works to add value and benefit to clients of the other.

Further research will increase the understanding of how coaching can be used as a modality within social work. The ethical principles of coaching and social work are rooted in the common value of cultivating lasting and meaningful change for clients. Coaching has a lot to offer social work, especially as it becomes increasingly used in practice.

Elizabeth Lasky, PhD, MSW, LCSW, is a certified coach and a fellow at The Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital at Harvard University and an adjunct professor at Fordham University.


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