7 Essential Guidelines for Mentoring in the Post-Weinstein Era

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek December 13, 2017
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Allegations of sexual misconduct and predatory behavior in the workplace are prompting lawsuits against employers and dismissals of those accused of wrongdoing. The fallout from the scandals may cause men to refrain from serving as mentors to avoid any hint of impropriety with a female colleague.

This backlash—what The New York Times called "unintended consequences"—can, in fact, hurt women's career advancement.

"Men pulling away from mentoring women right now is exactly the opposite of what should be happening," said Jennifer Brown, author of Inclusion: Diversity, The New Workplace & The Will to Change (Purpose Driven Publishing, 2017). "We need more men to mentor more women in order to deepen and enrich the pipeline for diverse talent."

It's important that leaders ensure mentoring and sponsoring relationships continue and act as role models, said Pam Jeffords, a partner at Mercer's human resources consulting firm in Denver. That includes mentoring men on how to create an inclusive environment and become advocates for gender equality.

"In the post-[Harvey] Weinstein era, individuals—especially men—might be thinking about how to avoid any appearance of inappropriate behavior," she observed. "The first step is for leaders to visibly continue sponsoring and mentoring the opposite gender to role-model positive behavior.

"Effective mentoring and sponsoring relationships should always start with ground rules and goals, so in addition to understanding what outcomes both parties are looking for, they can jointly establish the timing, location and frequency of the mentoring sessions so that the environment is comfortable for both parties," she said in an e-mail.

Additionally, leaders can foster a culture where sexual misconduct can be reported without fear of reprisal.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Develop a Diversity and Inclusion Initiative]

Other business leaders shared their mentoring guidelines in e-mails to SHRM Online.

1. Trade Chivalry for Common Courtesy 

"For women to advance in the workplace, it's absolutely critical that men serve as allies," said David Tessmann-Keys, president of global leadership company Development Dimensions International Inc. (DDI) in Pittsburgh. He is executive sponsor for DDI's "Men as Allies" program.

"Unfortunately, many male leaders may be reluctant to serve as mentors to women for fear that their actions may be misinterpreted. But the solution is not to avoid mentoring women, which will only lead to a bigger gender gap in leadership."

He suggested:

  • Trade chivalry for common courtesy. Chivalrous behavior, such as carrying luggage on a business trip and insisting on paying for coffee, "creates a negative power dynamic that undermines [a woman's] confidence and competence and may make her feel indebted." Instead, exhibit common courtesy that you would show any person.
  • Let mentees control decisions when possible, such as where to meet and other logistics. Some mentees may be comfortable driving to an event with you or meeting alone in your office while others may not.
  • Ask open-ended questions for feedback and listen carefully to gain important insights. 

2. Focus on Competencies  

The rules for mentoring remain the same whether it's a woman mentoring a man or a man mentoring a woman, said Nancy Mellard, national leader of CBIZ Women's Advantage, a management consulting firm in Cleveland.

"Ask first: What is the mentor/mentee's motivation and intent for entering into this relationship?" she said. The focus should be on developing competencies, not the attractiveness of either party, she added. "If we can understand and clearly define the intent of the relationship, then I don't think separate ground rules or boundaries need to be made."

Stacey Browning, president at Paycor, a Cincinnati-based human capital management company, also advised focusing on the work.

"When mentoring, whether praising or giving constructive feedback to the opposite sex, be sure to focus on skills, talents and competencies."

3. Show Respect, Use Wisdom 

"The name of the game is respect. Treat [a female colleague] as you would any other colleague," said Pamela Shand, CEO of OfferStage Consulting in New York City. Here are her guidelines:

  • Men should educate themselves on the definition of sexual harassment and what it means to women in a professional setting. Participate in harassment training and do some research on the topic. 
  • Act wisely. Don't make jokes of a sexual or flirtatious nature that could be easily misinterpreted and be mindful of your behavior. Consider bringing a third party along when inviting a female colleague to lunch or dinner.
  • Keep your hands to yourself.
  • Apologize if a woman is offended by your behavior and don't tell her to relax or calm down. 
"One of the primary reasons so many instances of harassment go unreported is because women are taught to 'let it go' or 'relax,' " Shand said.

4. Self-Monitor 

Senior male mentors should notice who they are making time to mentor, and when, said Brown, who offered other advice:

  • Conduct mentoring in public places and create safe mentoring environments for male and female mentees. 
"In a male-dominated business world, so much informal mentoring happens in informal social settings—after work or at weekends," she noted.

  • Senior women also should be aware of who they are making time for; the fear of being accused of positive bias toward their own identity group may mean that women avoid mentoring other women. 

5. 'Be a Decent Human Being' 

"There's only one ground rule that men can implement for preventing professional relationships from turning into a situation of sexual harassment—be a decent human being," said Demetria Miles-McDonald. She is founder and CEO of Decide Diversity, a Louisville, Ky.-based company that works to increase the presence and effectiveness of women and other minorities in workplace leadership positions.

"A good way for men to judge whether or not they are tiptoeing on the very thick and distinct line between professional behavior and sexual harassment is to ask themselves, 'If [someone from] the HR or legal department were in the room, would [my behavior] still be appropriate?' If the answer is fuzzy, err on the side of caution and assume that it's inappropriate."

6. Honor Personal Space 

"Men who increase their mentorship and sponsorship of women in response to [recent headlines] are helping positively change the workplace for us all," said Eileen Scully, founder of The Rising Tides, a Boston-based management consulting firm. Among her advice:

  • Never cross into anyone's personal space without permission.
  • Discuss personal situations as they relate to the impact on the mentee's job performance.
  • Younger mentees can and do make missteps. Part of the mentor's role is helping them understand how and why certain behaviors are inappropriate. 

7. Create A 'Culture of Voice' 

"The ideal environment is a culture of voice where all members of the organization feel comfortable in voicing any concerns," said Rob Bogosian, Ed.D., founder and principal at management consulting firm RVB Associates Inc. in Naples, Fla. He is co-author of Breaking Corporate Silence: How High-Influence Leaders Create Cultures of Voice (BCS Publishing, 2014).

"All mixed-gender mentors should receive training that includes roles and responsibilities and boundaries. We now live in a world where tolerance policies and boundaries must be crystal-clear. Once this environment has been created and the ground rules are known to all members of the organization, concerns around men and women mentoring one another should dissipate. If lines are crossed, there are clear actions that will be taken to rectify the situation."  

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