How to Start a Mentorship Program

A mentor and her mentee chatting in the office.

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Managers often ask job candidates what they see themselves doing in five years. But, if you’re not asking yourself, “how is our organization going to help these people get there?” you’re not doing your part in growing your employees' skills. Good candidates want to progress and improve in their jobs, so you need to make a mentorship program part of your normal company operations.

How do you start a mentorship program? The temptation is to assign mentors and mentees and walk away. Finished. The mentorship program is started. But that’s an ineffective way. It will only work if the mentors make it work, and senior people are busy and may resent you roping them into a mentorship program.

Instead, use these ideas to increase the probability that you develop a positive, contributing mentorship program.

Define Mentorship for Your Employees

You can’t ask people to participate in a program that they don’t understand. What happens when an employee is a mentor? What is expected of the mentees, the employees who work with a mentor? What are the goals of the mentorship program?

The answers to these questions depend on the nature of your business and the people involved. You may want your mentorship program to prepare employees for specific jobs in the future. In this case, you will want an established program that defines what you want people to learn and how the mentors need to interact.

You may want a program where the mentors directly help employees to achieve their own goals, whether that takes them up the ladder in the company or out the door. You may think that the latter program is a waste of time because you aren’t preparing employees for your business needs, but in fact, you may find it is useful.

Your employees will know that you support and respect them. This will make them happier and more satisfied with their current jobs. Additionally, they will see that it’s okay to be honest. As a result, if their talents and skills start going in a different direction, you will know about it and perhaps retain employees you would have otherwise lost.

Choose Your Mentors

While it’s tempting to say, “Everyone who has the job title of Director or above is now a mentor,” that’s not the best route. First of all, not everyone wants to become a mentor and forcing a senior manager to mentor is counter-effective and unfair to the mentee. No one likes to have to work with and listen to a senior manager who resents an assigned mentorship.

Instead, you want to encourage volunteers, and you may not want to limit the mentorship program to high-level people.

While a senior person is needed to help a middle manager grow and develop, that same middle manager is a positive choice to help a new analyst grow and develop. You want people who are enthusiastic about the mentorship program.

Yes, you may have to do some convincing, but when you start your mentorship program, you want it to succeed. If you have a successful first round, then other people will want to join in for later rounds.

Choose Your Mentees

Again, you want volunteers, but you may have more volunteers than you need or can accommodate. So you’ll have to decide how you will prioritize employees. At the start, you may wish to limit program participants to people who are already highly rated, or people in a single department.

However you decide to approach selecting mentees is fine, as long as you make fair and transparent decisions. Make sure your group doesn’t favor particular groups. A women-only or a people of color only mentorship program can run afoul of federal discrimination laws.

Set Your Rules for the Mentorship Program

How Often Are Mentors and Mentees Expected to Meet?

Once a month? More? Again, this depends on your goals, your needs, and the needs of the individual pair. A person who travels extensively will have more difficulty committing to dates and times than someone who works a 9:00 to 5:00 schedule.

How Will You Handle Confidentiality?

In a good mentor/mentee relationship, the pair trust each other and the mentee can come to the mentor with questions and concerns about their job. Mentors understand that these conversations are held in confidence. If a mentee says, “I’m really struggling with X,” the mentor should help her with that skill rather than sending off an email that says, “Emily isn’t capable of doing X.”

Two exceptions to confidentiality exist. One is factors that affect the mentorship program that both parties agree should be shared. The second is issues that violate the law or company policy. If a mentee says, “My boss sexually harasses me,” the mentor must make sure that either the mentee reports the problem or she must report it herself.

Because of the hierarchical relationship between mentor/mentee, once the mentor knows about the illegal behavior, the company becomes liable if they do not report it to the appropriate person and follow company guidelines.

What About Issues Related to #Metoo?

Major news outlets report that men are hesitant to mentor women, especially younger women, for fear of unfounded accusations. You can blow off their concerns but that approach ignores legitimate worries. You can take or require several actions to alleviate these fears—and the fears of women who might feel uncomfortable meeting with an older, unfamiliar man one on one.

You can assign two mentees to every mentor. You can require that all meetings are held in a public place—the cafeteria, a restaurant, or a conference room with windows and an open door. Note that if your rule is no closed-door meetings, you must require it from all participants, not just from male/female pairs.

You can provide training so that people understand what is sexual harassment. Remember, people from different generations have different views. People who just graduated from college believe in affirmative consent—if someone doesn't ask first, it’s inappropriate behavior. A Generation X employee was raised on no-means no—it’s okay to make a move, and if the person doesn’t turn you down, it’s all good.

You do need a strict rule against romantic relationships between mentor/mentee pairs, but doing additional training can help participants feel comfortable.

Starting up your mentorship program is difficult, but once you get your mentorship program running, it will benefit your business and your employees.