The Ethical Compatibility Between Social Work and Coaching
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?
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
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?
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
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
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).
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
Competence and Coaching
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
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.
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.
References and Resources
Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Practicing positive psychology coaching: Assessment, activities and strategies for success. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Brock, V. (2008). Grounded theory of the roots and emergence of coaching [unpublished doctoral dissertation]. International University of Professional Studies, Maui, Hawaii.
Burroughs, M., Allen, K., & Huff, N. (2017). The use of coaching strategies within the field of social work. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 10(1), 4-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/17521882.2016.1190981
Caspi, J. (2005). Coaching and social work: Challenges and concerns. Social Work, 50(4), 359-362. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23721316
Edelson, M. (2010). Values-based coaching: a guide for social workers and other human service professionals, NASW Press.
Gregory, J. B., & Levy, P. E. (2013). Humanistic/person-centered approaches. In J. Passmore, D. B. Peterson, & T. Freire (Eds.), Wiley-Blackwell handbooks in organizational psychology. The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of the psychology of coaching and mentoring (pp. 285-297). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Holden, G., & Barker, K. (2018). Should social workers be engaged in these practices? Journal of Evidence Informed Social Work, 15(1), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/23761407.2017.1422075
International Coach Federation. (2015). Code of Ethics. https://coachfederation.org/code-of-ethics
International Coach Federation and Pricewaterhouse Coopers. (2016). 2016 ICF Global Coaching Study. https://coachfederation.org/app/uploads/2017/12/2016ICFGlobalCoachingStudy_ExecutiveSummary-2.pdf
Losch, S., Traut-Mattausch, E., Mühlberger, M. D., Jonas, E. (2016). Comparing the effectiveness of individual coaching, self-coaching, and group training: How leadership makes the difference. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(629), 1-17. https://dx.doi.org/10.3389%2Ffpsyg.2016.00629
National Association of Social Workers. (2017). NASW code of ethics. Retrieved December 2019, from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English
Rao, P. (2013). Transformational coaching: Shifting mindsets for sustainable change. True North Resources LLC.
Reardon, C. (2016, November/December). Coaching’s growth offers new opportunities for social workers. Social Work Today, 16(6), 18.