Avoiding “like me” bias in early talent mentorship
15 March 2021
Bias creeps up everywhere at work. And if you’ve ever shown slight favoritism for a junior who reminds you “of a younger me,” you’ve inadvertently fueled a biased working environment. Mentorship programs develop early talent to the best of their potential. But how do you avoid the “like me” bias in your mentor/mentee matches?
The power of mentorship for early talent
Mentoring typically involves a senior or mid-weight manager, taking a younger, less experienced recruit “under their wing”. When managed correctly, mentorships are a powerful tool for nurturing grads and younger hires — especially early in their career.
✺ Mentoring helps put early talent in the spotlight
Finding and developing talent isn’t just about employing people with outstanding competencies. Businesses work best when talented people are matched with roles that require their individual skills. Mentorship offers an opportunity for leaders and decision-makers to get to know their mentees — and develop a deep understanding of how best to let them shine.
✺ More confidence, less anxiety, and a focus on better feedback
Mentoring leads to improved confidence and reduced anxiety in mentees. It also offers similar benefits to mentors, who gain a sense of confidence and satisfaction from seeing their mentees bloom. Both groups develop their self-awareness and also their ability to give and receive feedback constructively.
Having leaders and high-level management serving as mentors also increases awareness throughout the organization about the difficulties facing younger talent. In large or hierarchical organizations, business leaders can be isolated from those below them. The open and honest communication required for successful mentorship can provide valuable insights for everyone involved.
✺ A positive shift in unified company culture
Creating the corporate culture we want within our organizations isn’t always easy, and disseminating it can be tricky too. Mentorship offers an opportunity for meaningful relationships between groups who wouldn’t ordinarily have much contact. It also creates a platform for those in senior roles to model the values that they want to see throughout the company.
In turn, early talent mentees grow and develop into mentors themselves. And a self-fulfilling cycle of positive cultural cues reverberates throughout the years.
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“A younger version of myself”
For all its plus sides, business mentorship has watch-outs to be aware of too.
Bias often hides in plain sight.
Mentors typically choose their mentees because they see “something special” in them. Maybe they see some kind of connection or similarity between them. They could be fellow alumni from the same college or have walked a similar path to where they are today.
“Telling a mentee that “you remind me of a younger version of myself” has been seen as a high compliment throughout the business world. But it’s time to put a stop to that bias.“
It could be flattering to many mentees, sure. It’s also a warning sign for those of us dedicated to Diversity and Inclusion. Encouraging parallels between mentors’ life experiences, qualities, and even appearance risks your cohort of early talent developing to closely mirror the company’s senior leaders.
And that runs counter to our D&I aims.
Should mentors get to choose their mentees?
If mentors choose mentees who reinforce the status quo, it’s worth asking whether the decision should be taken out of their hands. There is a strong argument that this can be beneficial to all parties: the mentor, the mentee, and the company as well.
Allowing a third-party to match mentors and mentees offers an opportunity for development on all levels. External matching can take into consideration the career path a mentee desires and the skillsets they will need. It can focus on remedying any “blind spots” or weaknesses that they have identified, and finding them the assistance they require.
It also considers the skills and needs of the mentor, including the networks they have access to and any areas of development that they would also like to explore.
Are all “natural” mentorships shaped by bias?
There can be some reluctance to assign mentees, rather than encouraging free choice. And it’s easy to see why. Historically, most mentorships were informal and based on introductions and networking. Many mentoring relationships are still created informally and without organizational structures or definitions.
We usually find it easier to form personal relationships with people who share our background and outlook. Mentoring is often seen as an ‘optional extra’ — something that senior leaders may choose to carry out from time to time. It’s unsurprising that they would choose mentees with whom they feel an easy rapport.
The drawbacks of finding a mentor/mentee “like me”
When leaders choose mentees with similar backgrounds to themselves, the power structures already present within the organization will be reinforced — rather than challenged.
Mentors aren’t the only ones with a “like me” bias in the workplace. Mentees may seek out mentors who understand their experiences and are, in some way, like them too.
This may be fine for certain demographics of early talent, the ones who have many senior leaders “like them” to select from. But what happens with early talent from minority groups? As the saying goes, “You cannot be what you cannot see”. And at the moment, early talent is seeing a lot of one gender and one race at a leadership level. If we’re forming mentor matches on similarity — rather than suitability — minority talent will always be left behind.
Combatting bias in mentorship isn’t just positive for early talent.
The drive to work closely with someone “like me” is human nature. And it’ll require conscious effort to overcome.
To help ease that process, it’s important to reinforce why it’s so important that we remove bias from our mentoring programs:
Bias-free mentoring offers greater opportunities for growth
Both mentors and mentees have greater opportunities for learning and development when they have different world-views. We learn when we are presented with ideas that we haven’t encountered before. We learn from other people’s lived experiences too.
Mentoring relationships are designed to expand understanding and question preconceived ideas on both sides. We can maximize that benefit by making it more likely that mentor and mentee will challenge each other, in a healthy way.
Bias-free mentoring supports other D&I efforts
Diversity and Inclusion is a topic we write about extensively on the Headstart blog. What’s clear is that D&I only works when there’s company-wide buy-in, and when all practices and initiatives push the agenda forward.
It’s no different when it comes to mentoring. If we think of mentorships as fast-tracks for high-potential talent, it’s also a fast-track for a more diverse and inclusive senior team in the next few years.
“Nurture and develop homogeneous mentees and, chances are, you’ll have homogeneous leaders.“
It’s also important that people in senior positions spend time with a wide range of early talent from all backgrounds and social groups today. This helps leaders to develop a more nuanced idea of what high-potential talent might look like — because it won’t always be “like them”.
Putting early talent in control of mentorship matches?
It’s not quite as simple as removing the autonomy of choice from mentorship matching. After all, research has shown that the more involved a mentee is in the process of choosing their mentor, the more successful that mentorship goes on to be.
One option is to offer both parties a shortlist which has already been assessed for diversity. This assessment can be carried out by HR managers or through the use of AI-powered tools.
And here’s an even bolder idea: reverse mentoring. Pair junior members of staff with senior leaders and let them guide the way on issues such as technology, innovation, or diversity. As we know, the current generation of early talent is more engaged with Diversity and Inclusion than any cohort that’s gone before them. So who better to help create change?
At the very least, switch your “official” mentor partners up every so often. This avoids pairs getting settled and stuck in their ways.
Fighting bias at work is a long, and often complex, battle. But the more we can identify the areas within our business where bias is allowed to roam free, the sooner we can banish discrimination in every part of the organization.
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