Focus on Training & Development: Establish Positive, Mentoring Relationships

By Andrea C. Poe Feb 1, 2002
Reuse Permissions

HR Magazine, February 2002 Pick the pair, clarify expectations, then stand back and let the partnership develop.

"I wanted to help a young woman get ahead,” recalls Nicole Hayden, general manager for a commercial real estate company in Dallas. “What I did was create a gigantic mess that’s really turned me—and my company—off mentoring.”

Hayden reached out to a young receptionist, a move her company sanctioned. “I saw she had potential but also a lot of problems,” she explains. “I knew she needed a break and I thought I could help.” Hayden wanted to teach the young woman duties beyond the narrow scope of her job description. “I was grooming her to move up in the organization,” she notes.

Then the protégé, a single woman, became pregnant. “Everything changed suddenly. She began to feel like the world owed her a living. She came in late, missed work, mouthed off to me,” Hayden says, attributing the trainee’s bad attitude to stress. “She completely took advantage of the relationship we’d built.”

Other employees began to take notice and started asking why Hayden, who had no support from HR, was putting up with the insubordination. Finally, she had no choice but to fire the young woman, she says. The experience left a bitter taste. “I have to say I really don’t know if I’d be a mentor again,” Hayden adds. ·

“A bad mentoring relationship is worse than no mentoring at all,” says Larry Ambrose, managing partner of Perrone-Ambrose Associates, a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in mentoring relationships.

If a company sets up a formal mentoring program, HR needs to monitor participants’ progress without overstepping any confidentiality boundaries. It’s a tough but essential balance to strike because unsuccessful formal programs can drive out your rising stars. A negative experience in formal mentoring relationships can affect turnover rates and stress levels, concludes a recently published study led by Lillian Eby, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. It also could lower morale, Eby speculates.

When they work, mentoring relationships can be good for the company, the mentor and protégé. “Research indicates that mentored individuals perform better on the job, advance more rapidly within the organization, report more job and career satisfaction and express lower turnover intentions than their nonmentored counterparts,” according to Eby’s study.

There are key HR elements to a successful mentoring program. The HR department needs to set the goals of the program and design it based on those goals. HR also has to take great care in pairing the mentors and protégés, set realistic expectations for both parties and follow up with the pairs to make sure everyone is happy with the arrangement.

There also has to be strong buy-in from top management. “This can’t just be something coming out of the HR or training department, or it won’t be taken as seriously,” Ambrose says.

Bridging the Gap

Mentoring pairs seasoned members of the organization with less-experienced individuals. Mentors show trainees the ropes and serve as sounding boards, cheerleaders, gurus and even confidantes. Perhaps most importantly, mentors open doors into the network that helps people get ahead.

Some organizations design mentoring programs with a specific goal in mind, such as increasing diversity. For example, at Fannie Mae, the company’s Corporate Mentor Program is designed to encourage the advancement of high-potential employees, especially women and minorities. The program seems to be working: Women make up 44 percent of Fannie Mae’s management workforce, up from 36 percent in 1992; and minorities make up 25 percent of that group, up from 15 percent in 1992.

“For women and people of color, mentoring provides them access to leadership and power that they’d normally be shut out of,” says Belle Rose Ragins, professor of human resource management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who studies mentoring.

“Mentoring relationships can help get people who have been excluded into the pipeline,” agrees Rosina Racioppi, chief operating officer of Women United, a Hillsboro, N.J., organization that provides development programs for women in Fortune 1,000 companies.

Other organizations order mentoring programs around different goals, such as grooming high-potential employees or newcomers. “Once an organization has a successful track record with mentoring relationships, there’s no reason they can’t have multiple tracks of mentoring going at once,” says Ambrose. “But I recommend they start with one to get the hang of it.”

When considering what type of mentoring program advances the goals of your organization, ask the following questions: Are you looking to groom a trainee for management? Do you want to acquaint new hires with the company? Are you looking to cross-train the sales and IT departments?

Goals are imperative. “The company needs to have a clear understanding of what the mentoring program is intended to do and communicate that to employees,” says David A. Thomas, Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

Role Play

One of the most common problems with mentoring programs is incompatible pairings; it’s the fit that’s off, not the program. Allow as much choice as possible for the participants.

“It’s terribly important that they connect,” says Ambrose. That’s why he recommends asking trainees to choose three to five people in the organization they would like as mentors and then have the program coordinator select the one who fits the company’s goals.

Pairings at Fannie Mae have been successful, according to Cecilia Blacutt, senior project manager. “There are currently 300 formal pairs as compared to 25 pairs when the program started in 1994. Only two pairs have decided not to continue.” The trick? Detailed screening and matching done by the company’s pairing committee based on applicants’ interests and responses to an in-depth questionnaire.

What makes a successful mentor? It’s not enough that someone is good at his or her job and is well connected. A mentor must be someone with a good track record at the company, someone who understands the politics of the organization, someone willing to make a commitment of time and someone who wants to help others, according to Linda Smith, the New York-based senior vice president of Manchester Consulting.

Taking on a role as mentor isn’t just an altruistic experience, the experts say. “When we asked mentors why they do it, the No. 1 reason was to gain a better understanding of the more junior people they oversee,” reports Racioppi.

People tapped for a mentoring program also need the right stuff. “Although I’d like to say that anyone can be mentored, it isn’t so,” Racioppi says. When choosing someone to be mentored, HR should look for four traits: a willingness to learn; openness to input; ambition for his or her career; and promise within the organization.

The protégé is in the driver’s seat, says Racioppi. “They have to know what they’re going for. They can’t just sit at the knee of the mentor and be anointed. They have to take charge of their own career development.”

Mentoring programs only work if they’re voluntary. “You can’t force people into mentoring relationships,” warns Eby. Neglect is one of the biggest culprits in failed mentoring relationships, Eby’s research found.


Training can go a long way toward preparing participants and warding off unrealistic expectations. Along with explaining the nuts and bolts of the program, let participants know that, as with any relationship, there may be snags along the way. Stumbling blocks could include miscommunication, neediness, interfering responsibilities, and productivity peaks and valleys.

“It helps if people go in knowing about the bad things that can happen,” says Eby. “If they’re aware of them, they’ll recognize the warning signs and be more apt to know what to do.”

Then lay out what’s expected of mentors and protégés, says Racioppi.

For instance, protégés may expect too much of mentors, wanting them to work solely on their careers. “Some protégés have inflated expectations of these mentoring programs,” notes Eby.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some may be afraid to approach their mentors. “I’ve seen mentoring relationships fail only because no one knew who was supposed to pick up the phone and call first, so no one did,” says Thomas

The good news is that most problems surface in the early stages of the relationship, giving both parties a chance to either address the issues or get out, Eby notes.

The program should allow a no-fault termination in the first three months. “You have to take the stigma away from breaking these pairings because often people are afraid to break it off, afraid of hurting someone’s feelings,” says Thomas.

Fannie Mae provides guidelines for participants about what is expected of the relationship. The company also holds orientation sessions so mentors and protégés become acquainted with each other and with the program. Both parties sign a confidentiality agreement, an important element of trust building.


A mentoring relationship will not deliver results if there isn’t trust. The best way to dissolve trust is for HR and other managers to breach confidentiality and become involved in the details of the relationship.

“Don’t get your nose way up in there,” warns Thomas. “Let the mentor and protégé know you’re there if they need you, but step back and let it happen.” That’s not to say there isn’t a role for HR. After all, the organization is responsible for the pairing.

“The coordinator should send out surveys periodically to check in on how it’s going. Don’t ask specifics about the relationship, but find out how often they’re meeting and what kinds of activities they’re doing,” Thomas recommends. “If a pair isn’t meeting often enough, ask them to come in and find out what’s going on, and give them a gentle nudge.”

Fannie Mae does formal and informal evaluations. Participants periodically fill out surveys to help the company better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the program. The company’s office of diversity, health and work/life initiatives reviews the responses.

HR should be there to step in if the mentors or protégés need help. “This usually gets them back on track,” says Ambrose. “When the pair feels the relationship loosening, that’s the time to sit down and exchange feedback.”

Time is another key component of successful mentoring. Rushing the process won’t help. HR should set it up, then stand back and be patient. It takes about a year for a mentoring relationship to solidify, experts say.

“The mentor and protégé need time to form a close bond, where trust is formed,” maintains Smith. “That’s something that takes time.” But not too much time. “The relationship needs to go long enough to have value, but not so long that it loses focus,” cautions Racioppi.

If a partnership works well, it may continue informally. Participants may find they like working together and wish to continue the relationship after the formal program has ended. “It’s not all that uncommon that long-term, intense relationships develop,” notes Eby.

Let it happen, the experts say. When formal mentoring partnerships transform into informal relationships, everyone wins. “HR should foster the development of informal mentoring relationships,” says Ragins.

Andrea C. Poe is a freelance writer based in Easton, Md., who specializes in human resource and management issues

Reuse Permissions


Choose from dozens of free webcasts on the most timely HR topics.

Register Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect