Taking out the Trash (or How I Manage Client Information)

What do you do with your coaching client files and records?

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The trash can is overflowing as I throw away files and papers related to my coaching clients and students. There’s a pang of regret and fear that goes along with this exercise. “What if I need these again and can’t put my hands on them?”  Then a competing voice asks “But you promised your clients confidentiality and privacy and why do you need to keep all of this information anyway?”

In my Ethics in Coaching Class we carefully read the ICF Code of Ethics and ask ourselves if our current practices are aligned with the provisions of the Code. Each of us finds some way we can do better and we commit to learn more and make specific changes.

My assignment was to get serious about managing client information and deleting files when appropriate.

Here’s the paragraph in the ICF Code of Ethics I was using as my guide:

11. Maintain, store and dispose of any records, including electronic files and communications, created during my coaching engagements in a manner that promotes confidentiality, security and privacy and complies with any applicable laws and agreements. (ICF Code of Ethics, July 2015)

On first reading it seems simple and clear, but when you start asking “How would I implement this?”, the ambiguities appear.  What do I really need to do to “promote confidentiality, security, and privacy?” and which “laws and agreements apply?” are just the first two questions I asked. 

My goal was to create routines that addressed client and student records within a reasonable time after coaching engagement or class is done.  This seemed like an easy assignment, but I ran into the some challenges - I found it was a little more complex that I thought and I stumbled into more than one a“rabbit hole”.

Here’s my homework report that I shared with the other students in the class:

First things first - Where are my client documents?

  • Client documents and information are stored in many more places than I anticipated!. It’s in tax returns; my bookkeeping software; and my PayPal account. It’s in calendar entries; contact lists; and emails with their attachments.  It’s in electronic files and folders, and on paper. Client data is stored on my hard drive, on my mobile devices, in the “cloud”, on my desk and in notebooks.
  • With laptop, iPad, IPhone, and cloud apps that sync with each other, data start in one place, then get copied in two, three or more additional places.

I was overwhelmed by the idea that I needed to protect and keep “confidential and private” all of this data that is stored in so many places!

With all of that data floating around, what (really) needs to be protected?

I decided that the IRS and Maine Department of Revenue are the only entities really interested in who I do business with, how much I’m paid, when and for how long I talk with clients, or what their phone numbers/email addresses/Skype addresses are. I just don’t think there’s any danger in this information becoming public for the people I work with. Password protection should be enough.

It is important to protect and dispose of information about the content of my work with clients and students. This includes client coaching goals; interviews and notes from bosses, peers and direct reports; coaching session prep sheets;  homework assignment reports; coaching recordings, transcripts and assessment reports; and my notes about any of this content.

Now that I know what to delete, I need to know how!

This turned out to be the hardest part of this assignment. Deleting electronic files isn’t simple (or easy) because of multiple syncing devises, cloud-based applications, and disorganized filing systems. 

It took me a week of exploring to feel like I fully understood where files are stored and how they can be deleted in the systems I use. For example a file that I receive as an email attachment is stored on the mail server, in the mail folder on my computer, phone and tablet, and in system files that are hidden from my view, and then I copy it to a client folder. Tracking down all of these copies and learning the steps needed to really delete was, to say the least, a chore. 

After a couple of weeks of exploring and learning and thinking, here’s what I plan to do.

#1: I will be rigorous about deleting client, student and assessment files related to the content of our work within 30 days of the work being completed. I have an item on my ToDo list every 2 weeks to handle this task. I will delete files from ALL places that I know they can be hiding out on ALL devices and sites.

#2: I will revise my agreements to Include language that says I will hold our work in confidence but “doing business with” information will not be protected beyond passwords on devices and websites.

Sounds simple, but it won’t always be easy! 

With the technical details figured out, I started deleting - and ran into another obstacle.

My aversion to throwing things away reared it’s ugly head as soon as I started moving files into the Trash. Luckily, I quickly noticed that this response was the same as my response to getting rid of a pair of shoes that no longer fit. While my fear says these things are irreplaceable and I will suffer harm without them, my logical brain knows that they can be replaced, that most of the time they don’t need to be replaced, and that no deaths or injuries will occur if I no longer have them. 

I can just let them go.

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Monday, 20 November 2017