Now more than ever, organizations are seeking to find ways to become allies and act out against racial injustice. In reaction to the current events that have brought attention to racial injustices that exist in our society today, we now have to dig deeper to create a workplace culture that is not only inclusive on the forefront but equitable for all employees. It is no longer acceptable to simply provide D&I training sessions—it is our responsibility to find ways to change the work environment, so that all employees are actively contributing to creating an inclusive and equitable workplace. So, what can organizations do to become stronger allies?
Looking at the literature, we examine the impact of mentor relationships and how they can act as vehicles for employees, specifically those of marginalized groups, in accessing opportunities and reaching career development goals.
Mentorship & Marginalized Groups
A mentor’s job is twofold: mentors provide mentees with both career development and psychological support to navigate their careers. Mentors grant mentees access to visibility, new and challenging opportunities, coaching, and sponsored advancement, while also playing the role of a role-model, friend, and support system. Taken together, a mentor can positively influence the protégé’s career development. (Kram, 1985). Studies have revealed a strong positive impact of mentorship on career attitudes (Eby et al., 2013), as well as job satisfaction, compensation, promotion, and career commitment (Allen et al., 2008).
Mentorship is particularly important for mentees of marginalized groups because successful mentors can help them overcome barriers in obtaining access to opportunities that their privileged counterparts have. Although mentorship can be a tool for organizations to develop an equitable work environment, research suggests that people of color are faced with more barriers in obtaining mentors than white employees (Ragins & Cotton 1991). People of color often look outside of the organization to build mentor relationships and access resources to assist them in career development (Thomas, 1990), suggesting that obtaining mentors internally is a challenging endeavor. Privileged people in organizations, such as senior white employees, can help remove barriers for employees of marginalized groups by exposing them to opportunities of power and authority that they would otherwise be excluded from. Employees of privilege can act against racial injustice in the workplace by becoming mentors to minority mentees (Clutterbuck & Ragins, 2002).
What makes a successful mentor match?
Although people of privilege can help contribute to creating equality in organizations, when employees are looking for someone to enter a mentor relationship with, they often use group membership as a basis for interpersonal similarity (Clutterbuck & Ragins, 2002). The reason being is that people view similar surface-level characteristics as an indication of shared background, experiences, and values. Thus, white employees may choose to approach other white employees due to perceived similarity, and people of color may shy away from approaching white employees due to perceived lack of similarity. The concept that surface-level similarities are an indication for a successful mentor relationship is largely false and can lead to ineffective mentor relationships. However, this conceptualization is particularly detrimental for employees of marginalized groups because they are restricted from opportunities to obtain mentors who can help them overcome barriers and achieve success in their careers.
Despite the increased exposure to opportunity that privileged senior employees can provide, matching employees based on diversity alone will not foster equity and inclusion. Eby and colleagues found that deep-level similarity (attitudes, values, beliefs, and personality) predict perceived successful mentor relationships. Recognizing that leveraging diverse mentorship can help increase inclusion and equity in organizations is essential; however, establishing these relationships on a foundation of similar attitudes, values, and beliefs is a key factor for them to be successful.
Best Practices for Diverse Mentor Relationships
When implementing mentoring programs aimed to support individuals in marginalized groups, organizations can use best practices to increase the effectiveness of their program.
- When creating the mentorship program, ensure that the program is accessible at all levels of the organization and provide structure and training for participants.
- Give participants instructions on aspects like how to communicate, frequency of communications, and potential topics for discussion.
- When assigning pairs, focus on deep-level similarities (attitudes, values, beliefs, and personality) rather than surface-level similarities. Support for the effect of deep level similarity has also been found to predict perceived satisfaction and support specifically within informal mentor relationships (Ensher, Grant-Vallone & Marelich, 2002).
- If you create diverse mentorship pairs, ensure that mentors are allies and understand and seek to help dismantle barriers that mentees that are part of a minority/marginalized group face in their career. This can be supported by training. However, if a mentee is only interested in pairing with a mentor from their own identifying group, try to respect their wishes. Mentees should feel supported and psychologically safe when interacting with their mentor.
- Organizations should also consider measuring mentoring program outcomes from participant satisfaction to mentee success over time. Measuring outcomes will allow organizations to examine the impact the program has on the organization and make changes as needed to increase its effectiveness.
- Finally, organizations should create an avenue for mentors and mentees to provide feedback about the program. This is especially important if mentees or mentors need to terminate mentorship relationships.
Mentoring programs are a great way for organizations to support employee development and provide psychological support, especially for employees from marginalized groups. When organizations seek to create pairings based on deep-level characteristics and follow industry best practices for creating diverse pairings, mentoring programs can be an effective way for organizations to support and provide opportunities for their diverse employees.
Allen, T. D., Eby, L. T., O’Brien, K. E., & Lentz, E. (2008). The state of mentoring research: A qualitative review of current research methods and future research implications. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 73(3), 343-357.
Clutterbuck, D., & Ragins, B. R. (2002). Mentoring and diversity: An international perspective. Routledge.
Eby, L. T. D. T., Allen, T. D., Hoffman, B. J., Baranik, L. E., Sauer, J. B., Baldwin, S., … & Evans, S. C. (2013). An interdisciplinary meta-analysis of the potential antecedents, correlates, and consequences of protégé perceptions of mentoring. Psychological bulletin, 139(2), 441.
Ensher, E. A., Grant‐Vallone, E. J., & Marelich, W. D. (2002). Effects of perceived attitudinal and demographic similarity on protégés’ support and satisfaction gained from their mentoring relationships. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(7), 1407-1430.
Kram, K. E. 1985. Mentoring at work. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Co.
Ragins, B. R., & Cotton, J. L. (1991). Easier said than done: Gender differences in perceived barriers to gaining a mentor. Academy of Management journal, 34(4), 939-951.