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I was going through annual HR training, and one thing jumped out at me. In the "diversity" section, an advice was given to the effect of "if you care about diversity, volunteer to participate in efforts... such as mentor someone".

Now, I have mentored people before, and see it as a wonderful opportunity to both help someone, and learn myself, and strengthen the company.

But in this context, it seems to be Catch-22!

  • If I approach someone from a diverse background offering to mentor them, that singles them out and seems to imply that they need mentoring, which is kind of the opposite of the message that ought to be delivered and promotes less equal treatment environment.

  • But if I don't, it's well known that people who would most benefit from mentoring tend to be shyer, and are less likely to approach someone more senior and ask to be mentored.

How can this catch-22 be resolved in a productive and appropriate way?

  • 1
    Does your company have a formal mentoring program? – David K Oct 18 '16 at 14:36
  • @DavidK - yes but (1) it is fairly targeted (e.g. there are mentorship programs specifically for associates) and (2) they are - and probably rightly so - not "only for employees with diverse backgrounds", therefore leading to the second problem I outlined, where people who need mentoring but are shy wouldn't apply to participate in such a program. – user13655 Oct 18 '16 at 14:38
  • @RichardU sometimes these programs are run by people of diverse backgrounds. They're much more likely to succeed when they are. "Mentorship" seems off color though. – user42272 Oct 18 '16 at 15:12
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    @djechlin It works best when there is a mix. You want to avoid echo chambers and an "us vs them" mentality when it's run entirely by people of "diverse" (god I hate that term) backgrounds on the one side, and what can quickly become "We know what's better for you than you do" attitude on the other. A collaborative approach works best – Richard U Oct 18 '16 at 16:23
  • @Raystafarian if you systemically offer help to white males and tend to prefer doing so, which you probably do because nearly everyone does, then it makes you a little bit racist, and it's better to acknowledge this and understand when one does things like this and try to correct it. It's much better to say "I probably am prone to this sort of discrimination, let me identify how and try to work it out of my lifestyle" than "I am not a racist, therefore it's nonsense to suggest I do anything differently than what I am." – user42272 Oct 18 '16 at 21:40
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Target someone who is struggling. That is the only way to avoid coming across as condescending and paternalistic. You have correctly identified the catch 22.

I have several disabilities. From my perspective, I would consider it highly offensive if someone were to decide to mentor me simply because I have these problems. However, if I were struggling and the difficulties were related to my situation, I would welcome the help.

THAT is how you make the distinction.

If the person needs mentoring due to their situation, then it's a green light, if not, then you can get into a good deal of trouble.

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I find it odd that some of the answers/comments and somewhat the implication of this question is that mentoring is done to help people who are deficient in their skills. Mentoring is generally, in my experience, done to help people you think are capable of being promoted to higher level of responsibility and not the people you think are deficient at their current level. When someone is deficient, that is job training.

Mentoring is generally best done when it arises naturally. Mentor people who work for you or that you have reason to be in professional contact with anyway and don't exclude minorities or women from that mentoring. But don't exclude all white men either.

Don't go up to someone and say I want to mentor you. Pretty much anyone would find that offputting. Just start to provide advice as it is appropriate to the situation. Be someone who readily answers questions and is approachable. Then let people approach you for advice. In casual discussions start to talk about workplace issues of concern at a higher level than the person is to start to give them the senior perspective. I have mentored lots of people through the years, I have never once had to say to them, "Hey, let me mentor you."

  • First paragraph is absolutely true, both from experience and formal training. Second paragraph is actually not correct, especially from formal training. Best mentorship is apparently NOT from your manager, according to what we were taught. Re: third paragraph, the question was - sorry if that's unclear - about a semi-formal 1:1 mentorship programs, not random "I will give random advice to everyone" approach. – user13655 Oct 18 '16 at 19:58
  • I like this answer mostly, but I think the point is that minority colleagues tend to be treated as out-group and not "naturally" included. – user42272 Oct 18 '16 at 21:35
  • If you choose formal mentees based on who you want to work with but don't just exclude people because they are in minority groups you will be fine. Personally I find that formal mentoring is a generally a waste of time, but YMMV. Certainly I never seen anyone who succeeded who did not have significant informal mentoring from their managers. If your managers don't care about your success, no amount of other people giving you advice will help. Sure they can't necessarily be in a formal mentoring situation unless they formally mentor their entire staff. – HLGEM Oct 18 '16 at 21:46
  • @HLGEM - the context of the question is formal mentoring. – user13655 Oct 19 '16 at 1:28
  • FWIW googling "diversity mentoring" and related phrases turns up a lot of sites espousing that mentorship is a very powerful means to diversity. – user42272 Oct 19 '16 at 1:46

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