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Mentorship at work: What is it and why does it matter?

Workplace mentorship and why it builds great organisations

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Starting an entirely new job usually requires you to learn from more experienced co-workers. Even if you’ve had training beforehand, there’s often a world of difference between preparing to do a job in theory, and actually carrying it out in practice. 

Take recently qualified doctors and lawyers, for example, who are generally expected to keep learning through the early stages of their career. 

But while on the job training and ‘shadowing’ are typical approaches here, the role of mentorship is slightly different. Mentors are there to guide, not solely from a practical viewpoint but a theoretical/emotional one too. 

Mentors and mentorship programmes should help mentees with a more holistic approach to their career, focussing on ways in which to grow self-motivation, learning and development within their protégé. 

Mentorships can help employees to find their feet, engage in their roles and advance their careers. 

In this article, we’ll be looking at what makes a good workplace mentorship, as well as why they’re an important tool for employee development.

Why workplace mentorships matter

Mentorship can give employees an accessible roadmap for their careers that can help take some of the guess-work out of deciding their futures. It’s a bit like swapping from one of those old A-Z maps to the latest iteration of Google Maps. 

Mentorships give you the benefits of your mentor’s wisdom. Not just the things they did right that got them where they are today, but what they wish they had done differently. Workplace mentorship can be a valuable source of feedback, as well as support for an employee’s wellbeing.

A case study at Sun Microsystems covered by Forbes found that mentees were five times more likely to be promoted or to advance in pay-grade than those not in a mentorship programme. Mentors themselves were even more likely to get a raise or a promotion, showing that workplace mentorships can be beneficial for all participants.

Mentorships are also one of the most effective tools in the workplace for increasing diversity. 

A study of over 1000 US employees, “Creating a culture of Mentorship”, found that of the 27% of respondents who said their organisations ran mentorship programs, nearly three-quarters of those who were minority respondents reported participating. Women and BAME participants were also more likely to report that mentoring was extremely important to their careers. 

A good mentor should be someone who understands the experiences their mentee will face, which is why it’s not just important to make sure members of marginalised groups can access these mentorships, but also to ensure that these people can go on become mentors themselves.

Mentorship at work can come from anyone, not just someone older or more senior.

How to be a great workplace mentor

Mentoring requires great communication skills and a good deal of patience. So for any readers who found this article while preparing to take on a workplace mentorship role for the first time, below are summaries of the different kinds of mentors, as well as a few tips that are worth bearing in mind.

Different types of mentorship include:

  • Peer mentorship: Peer mentorships are often used in early career stages, during the onboarding process. If you’re a peer mentor, you’ll be guiding someone more-or-less on your level, showing them the ropes and helping them get acclimated to the workplace.

  • Career mentorship: This is perhaps the most quintessential form of mentorship. In this role, you’ll help your mentee to understand how their role fits into the goals of the organisation, as well as provide career advice. If all goes well, you’ll also advocate for them if they try to get a promotion or a raise.

  • Life mentorship: They have the least relevance here, so we’ll keep it brief. Life mentors aren’t necessarily part of the workplace, as their role is more based on helping their mentee understand how their career fits into and impacts the rest of their life. If a mentee leaves their current job or changes professions altogether, life mentors will often help them navigate this change.

But regardless of what kind of mentor you are, here are a few general tips to help you engage with your mentee effectively. You might notice that we’ve poached a couple of these from our list of performance review tips for managers. That’s because management and mentorship can share a certain similarity in that you’re helping an employee to better understand their role, and providing feedback to help them improve.

Set expectations and time boundaries: First-time mentees are probably a little unsure of what to expect, or indeed, how much they actually stand to gain from being mentored. Setting expectations not only gives the employee an idea of the effort you’ll both be putting in, but also of how the mentorship could stand to benefit them. 

Time boundaries are important too. Maybe you have all the time in the world for your mentee, and if so, that’s great. But far more likely, you’ll still have your own responsibilities to consider. Setting out times they can contact you and establishing channels for asynchronous communication for when you can’t meet up can go a long way.

Mentorship at work: A key element is frequent, personal communication.

Accept your mentee’s current skill level: New roles come with a learning curve. After all, if mistakes didn’t happen, employees wouldn’t need mentoring in the first place. You need to get a good understanding of where your mentee is at so you can help them continue to develop with constructive feedback.

Take an interest: ‘Employees don’t quit jobs, they quit managers’ is an adage so old it probably had to be translated into Latin from Proto-Germanic or something. But there’s a kernel of wisdom in it that’s worth bearing in mind for workplace mentorships too. If you’re completely disinterested in your mentee’s wellbeing and career progression, it’s inevitably going to limit their engagement with your advice because you aren’t empathising with them.

Practice active listening: It’s important for your mentee to feel heard. When something goes wrong or they encounter an obstacle, as their mentor, you’re meant to be a sounding board for them to voice their concerns. Rather than getting the summary of an issue and launching into advice mode, let them talk and engage with what they’re saying. Ask questions and work through each aspect of the issue they’re facing. This can also help you to be more emotionally intelligent in your mentorship and to more effectively consider your mentee’s workplace wellbeing.

The challenges of workplace mentorship

Mentorship isn’t always easy. To begin with, it’s vital to make sure employees get paired with suitable mentors. It might simply be a case of assigning them based on stated career interests like future areas of specialisation. Or perhaps you have an introverted employee in need of a mentor who can help them develop coping strategies and advocate for changes to make their workplace more accessible. 

Going back to how mentorships can benefit marginalised groups, key examples are the female, BAME and LGBTQ employees who often face discrimination in the workplace. Members of marginalised groups can potentially benefit more from a mentor who has experienced similar systemic difficulties and can offer advice from a place of first-hand understanding.

This also relates to the issue of accessibility. If not everyone can access these mentorships, they run the risk of perpetuating favouritism and elitism. After all, if Jerry from three cubicles down has been getting personal guidance from a senior manager and you haven’t, then, of course, he’s in with a better shot at that promotion.

Finally, there’s the issue of feedback and communication. We touched on it in our tips section, but it’s important for an employee to know when you’re accessible, and what their options are for reaching you. Feedback is most effective when it’s delivered in a timely and consistent manner, and face-to-face one-to-ones can really help to build up a dialogue. 

But unless you’re being mentored by a retired member of the company, they’re going to have to fit you in around other responsibilities. Tools like Weekly10’s check-in system can really make a difference. Even if mentees don’t perform a check-in specifically set up for their mentor, they can still pass their updates up to them. This is a time-efficient way of making sure mentors stay up-to-date.

For more information on employee engagement and the importance of effective feedback and support in the workplace, check out our blog today!

Could frequent feedback and continuous performance management, via a simple employee check-in help your mentors become more effective?

Research Associate