If you stand back and look at the revelations and accusations tumbling out of formerly beyond-reproach organizations you can see the same pattern, whether it is Oxfam, the Church, the BBC, the film industry, Parliament, local government – and many more. First there is the long silence where the abused dare not complain about the abusers, knowing that no one will take them seriously. Then there is the cover-up where the abuser is quietly removed, often to sail merrily on to another organization where they repeat the behaviour. Then when the story emerges, the victims are blamed: they asked for it, they are in any case people of low status and limited importance or else it didn’t happen, they were lying. Finally when the story can no longer be denied there are lame apologies, those in authority at the time were doing their best, they thought it was more important to protect the organization, its powerful elite and its reputation, than to protect the victims. These decisions look absurd, astonishing and often appalling in retrospect, but they are so much the dominant pattern that you have to assume that they are the norm.
What is any of this to do with coaching? In the last few weeks I have made it my business to raise the question with clients, all of them in influential positions. My question has been, ‘Could it happen in your organization?’ I have asked this question, putting it on the agenda because as coaches I believe we have our own duty of care to clients.
The majority of my clients insist at first that such scandals could not happen in their organization, but more discussion usually reveals that they could. For a start there is the information gap: can you be sure that you have equal pay? The answer is often no, because the data has not been collected. If there is a whistleblowing policy, the give-away that it is toothless is that no one has ever made a complaint, or that if they have, it has been investigated by a relatively junior staffer rather than by an objective and, ideally, a legally qualified outsider. One client, working for an organization where children and young adults regularly visit the premises, confessed that she did not really know what ‘safeguarding’ meant and that her organization did not have a safeguarding policy. When you ask questions about the culture, you may get uneasy answers revealing high levels of so-called banter, often code for the male rowdiness which can easily tip into gratuitously sexualized behaviour. It is easy to close your eyes to all of this when it is over-familiar and taken for granted as merely part of ‘the way we do things around here’.
One client left his session saying that he was experiencing a strong sense of disquiet as a result of our discussion, feeling that something was wrong but he could not put his finger on exactly what it was. A few days later we had a phone follow up where he described having discovered that their safeguarding and whistleblowing policies were taken very seriously by his colleagues in the two top tiers of the organization but that the moment you looked elsewhere you found a mass of vague complaints and a great deal of shoulder-shrugging based on the belief that there was no point in raising a problem because ‘nothing’ would be done. That organization immediately commissioned a mandatory programme of training for every member of staff. It remains to be seen how much difference this makes, but no one can be in any doubt about the intention to expose such problems before they become messes.
Assessing risk is part of every organization’s duty of care, but what does this mean in practice? The pitifully lame performance of the Oxfam Chief Executive when under pressure to explain his predecessor’s unfortunate actions, suggests that Oxfam did not have a robust crisis-management plan in place. This should include a well prepared Comms team and rigorous media training for the chief executive, drilling him or her in how to deal with hostile questioning. It would mean expressing immediate shame and regret for the suffering of the victims and the promise of a thorough independent investigation – rather than seeming defensive or defiant.
These incidents will become more common. You may find, as I have over the last two years, that as a coach you are working with people who are accusers or accused. This is exceptionally daunting for such clients. It preoccupies them; their careers are perilously near derailment, their personal lives may be disintegrating, their mental and physical health will most probably suffer. It is easy as a coach to be drawn into the intensity of it, into judgement, maybe into indignation on their behalf if it is clear that they have been abused or wrongly accused, or else you start to feel dislike and a wish to see them punished if they admit that their behaviour was inappropriate. You may wish to reform, to rescue or to offer detailed advice, for instance if, as is probable, the client wants to share reams of evidence with you. One of the coaches whom I supervise is also a lawyer and started advising the client on the legalities of her case. When the tribunal found against her she was bitterly critical of the coach: ‘You let me down’.
Don’t do this. Your main and vital value as a coach is to be the one place where the client can be honest and vulnerable. You will be able to offer perspective, to talk the client through their dilemmas even if you disagree with their conclusions. You can still coach them into finding sources of specialist advice, you can express reservations, show empathy for their distress, test the practicalities and the consequences of their choices, but in the end what to do is down to them.