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April 12, 1999

Sucessful corporate mentoring programs depend on clarity and purpose, says psychologist

By Jennifer McNulty

In the corporate world, mentoring programs have become almost as commonplace as annual reports.

Mentors can help new employees learn the ropes and established employees move up the corporate ladder. They can help bridge gaps between men and women, blacks and whites, and managers and rank-and-file staff. But mentoring programs can also backfire, creating feelings of alienation, guilt, and disappointment.

"Mentoring sounds wonderful at first, but mentoring done poorly is dangerous," explained Faye J. Crosby, professor of psychology at UCSC. "It's like investing. Done well, it can make you rich, but done poorly, you can lose all your money."

Crosby, a social psychologist and a leading authority on affirmative action in education and business, turned her attention to mentoring programs when she noticed corporations embracing mentoring as a way to address diversity issues in the workplace. She is coeditor of the new book, Mentoring Dilemmas: Developmental Relationships Within Multicultural Organizations (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999).

The book is a blend of theoretical and practical information about mentoring programs, which Crosby advocates as long as the programs are well-conceived and structured to avoid some common problems. Successful mentoring programs can increase communication, build retention, and facilitate promotion of junior staff members, she said, but coordinators must establish clear goals and ensure that both mentors and junior staff members buy into the specific purposes of the program.

Although mentoring relationships vary, the common thread is the establishment of an alliance between senior and junior members of an organization. There are two types of successful programs: Those in which mentors provide social and emotional support to junior colleagues, and those in which senior members offer practical, action-oriented help to their protégés. Problems arise when the goals of a program are poorly defined, said Crosby. "If employers aren't careful, employees can go into these programs expecting instant advancement, and they can easily become disaffected if that doesn't happen," she said.

According to Crosby, the major pitfalls associated with mentoring are:

Each of these drawbacks can be avoided with planning and oversight, said Crosby, who coedited Mentoring Dilemmas with Audrey J. Murrell, associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz School of Business, and Robin J. Ely, an associate professor of public affairs at Columbia University.

Organizations, including businesses, schools, governments, and churches, have always required renewal as newcomers take the place of departing senior members. Diversity has added layers of urgency and complexity to the task as organizations are being transformed by the presence of women and people of color. Mentoring programs offer a way for senior members to train and socialize their protégés, as well as to sponsor employees on their way up.

Mentoring, which is already well-established in banking, communications, high technology, and auto manufacturing, also addresses one of the major challenges facing corporate America: employee retention. "Silicon Valley's biggest problem is retention and coordination of the advanced worker," said Crosby.

For mentors, such programs can add to their own feelings of satisfaction by offering an opportunity for them to help develop young talent.

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