Why Employee Mentoring Is Not an HR Tool

Due to mentoring’s broad benefits, many see it as a solution to a wide array of organizational issues, but the tool should not be used to handle problem employees, an expert warns.

The benefits of employee mentoring have been extolled for years: transmitting organizational culture, improving interpersonal relationships, and helping newcomers be successful. Because of this, some organizations view mentoring as a cure-all for their ills. Don’t fall into this trap, warned Allison McWilliams, a mentoring expert at Wake Forest University.

“I think where these programs tend to fall short is where people say, ‘We have some kind of need, mentoring programs are great, so let’s start a mentoring program,’” said McWilliams, assistant vice president of mentoring and alumni personal and career development at WFU.

Mentoring should help new employees to a field or association by pairing them with those already steeped in the environment. However, it should not be a mechanism that managers weaponize. “Everything about mentoring should be voluntary,” McWilliams said. “No one should be forced into mentoring. It shouldn’t be punitive.”

In her studying of mentoring programs, McWilliams has seen mentoring commonly misused within organizations. “They use mentoring where they mean to use coaching,” McWilliams said. “You’ve got performance issues. That needs coaching, not mentoring.”

So, how should mentoring be used? Generally, mentoring is a support system to help mentees. “We all need people to help us be successful,” McWilliams said. “Mentoring, at its core, is how we learn. We need those people who can show us the way, connect us to opportunities.”

The best mentoring is done in programs that are short in duration and designed with a goal. A mentoring program, for example, could have a goal of helping new employees better understand an organization.

Handling Participant Preferences

Because employee mentoring programs should not be used as corrective action for employees and should be completely voluntary, they should defer to the desires of their participants.

“If someone talks about the type of person they want to be paired with—race or gender—that should be honored,” McWilliams said. “One of the key elements of an effective mentoring relationship is that you base a relationship on trust, that you can talk to them about challenges that you’re having. If meeting with someone of a different gender makes you uncomfortable, that is going to have impacts on your ability to have an effective mentoring relationship.”

She acknowledged that people sometimes feel concerned about granting these preferences because they incorrectly equate formal mentoring programs with a process of informal mentoring. This involves a high-level employee choosing a person he wishes to give guidance and preference to, a process that in the past has often been discriminatory toward large swaths of employees.

“It speaks to the informal mentoring side,” McWilliams said of this nervousness about honoring preferences in mentor programs. “When someone in a position of power says they’re not going to be available, I think the repercussions are seen in the ability of women to create informal mentoring relationships. The people who have the ability to help people move up are still white men, and that disempowers women and people of color.”

Formal mentoring programs should be open and eschew the biases that sometimes arise in informal mentoring. “One of the benefits of a formal program is, you have someone managing that program, to have those conversations, to set those expectations,” McWilliams said.

Has your association used employee mentoring programs? Share your story in the comments.


(Andrii Yalanskyi/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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