It’s not often that something as simple as incorrect wording makes a huge difference to the success of organizational initiatives. But when it comes to the topic of improving employee performance and fostering an inclusive workplace, it’s crucial that enterprise stakeholders, human resources departments, and executives are working with the right concepts in mind. So, although words like “coaching,” “professional development,” and “mentorship” may seem similar, they refer to significantly different aspects of good corporate leadership. The latter is particularly important in today’s tumultuous cultural and workplace climates.
Enterprises of all sizes and across industry segments are experiencing difficulty when it comes to retaining, engaging, and optimizing their employees. In addition to the mass experiment of remote-hybrid work caused by the pandemic, and the persistent issues of low employee engagement and burnout, many industries are now matching historic highs in employee turnover. Known as the “Great Resignation,” companies across many markets are having difficulty retaining and optimizing their key talent.
Issues of systemic bias and a lack of diversity at the enterprise leadership position add another layer of complexity to the issue of improving enterprise firm performance. High-profile instances of racism and systemic prejudice against Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) and other minority groups over the past 18 months have once again brought to light the foundational issues that plague our institutions
across the public and private sectors. Employees, consumers, and business partners are demanding that companies take action to address the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the organizational hierarchy.
This perfect storm of employee dissatisfaction and lack of effective diversity, equity, and inclusion measures at the corporate level requires a comprehensive solution strategy. One that helps all employees flourish within the organization and allows those from marginalized groups to receive the additional guidance and support they need to achieve upper management and leadership roles within the company.
Mentoring programs and innovative solutions like mentoring software offer enterprise stakeholders the opportunity to address many of the diversity- and personnel-related issues they currently face. But before one can fully understand how mentoring helps improve employee engagement and organizational diversity, it’s essential to understand these two important concepts: mentoring and DEI practices.
Mentoring refers to close 1-to-1 relationships between a mentor and a protege (or mentee), where the former imparts relevant skills, knowledge, and experiences with the latter. These relationships are often centered around professional interests but can also expand to cover other parts of an individual’s private life. Unlike the typical dynamics of leader-employee interactions, mentorship is more open-ended, both in terms of structure and the people involved. For instance, a company may choose to implement a mentoring program between junior employees and department veterans; or, a new employee can choose to approach an outsider who they feel has had their ideal career trajectory or similar lived experience.
At its core, mentoring consists of three main components: The mentor, the mentee, and the relationship. The mentor is an individual with extensive experience and success across a given domain who is looking to impart their knowledge to a protege. The protege, or mentee, is a less experienced individual who is looking to build their knowledge base, learn new skills, and develop as a person. The mentoring relationship allows this transfer of knowledge, skill, and experience to occur in a contextually rich, emotionally safe environment.
Either organically or through a structured company mentoring program, a mentee is partnered with someone who has expertise within a specific domain. The mentee will come to this dynamic with a setlist of goals that they are looking to achieve, and the mentor will use their repertoire of insight and experience to help their mentee achieve this agreed-upon outcome. Expert meta-analysis
of mentoring success finds that mentees often seek out individuals similar to themselves in terms of temperament, career focus, and other personal qualities. This is especially important for mentoring programs focused on promoting diversity and inclusion at higher organizational levels.
One of the few components of this practice essential for success is that the two parties have chemistry. Relationship quality is one of the most significant factors for determining the success of a mentoring program, so there must be a proper fit between mentor and mentee. After all, the experience of mentorship is two-sided. A mentor and mentee form a relational connection that centers around developing professional and personal skills through repeated conversation. Synchronous communication is another key to successful mentoring experiences, whether in-person or conducted through a digital platform or other online means. The consistent conversations develop into a rapport and a kind of therapeutic relationship that allows mentor and mentee to achieve the desired goal.
Unlike other relationships built on familial, professional, or contractual obligations, a mentoring relationship requires active participation and dedication from both parties to be successful. Consistency is key. While earlier definitions of mentorship referred to long-term connections spanning years and multiple different philosophies of life and work, modern society is adding new dimensions to that traditional approach.
For instance, many people are now looking for a task- or outcome-specific mentorship. These more surgical approaches to mentorship are often facilitated with specific outcomes or deliverables that can be implemented immediately in the workplace. Companies are starting to implement this mentorship style to improve and fill talent gaps and ensure that their employees are on track in terms of professional development.
Mentoring is important in the workplace context for a variety of reasons. As mentioned earlier, employers are having a difficult job when it comes to:
- Engaging their employees through a positive workplace culture.
- Creating an inclusive work environment for employees of all backgrounds.
- Equitably providing personal growth.
Implementing a structured mentorship program, or fostering an environment where mentoring relationships form organically, is crucial to creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace culture.
In typically male-dominant fields like STEM, the need for mentoring is even more important. As recently as just 4 years ago, around 75% of professionals in these industries were male,
and only a small percentage were visible minorities. This is true for other employment segments as well, and particularly at the leadership level. As you will see, mentorship is crucial for improving DEI across these homogenous organizations.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
The benefits of mentorship extend well beyond the domains of individual employee performance, human resources outcomes, or firm performance. Mentoring programs are also powerful tools for cultural change, particularly when it comes to addressing issues of systemic racism and other forms of overt or implicit bias in the workplace. This is important given the large number of diversity training initiatives that fail to yield results in the enterprise context.
It’s no secret that the enterprise workplace has and continues to experience issues with the representation of minority employees. Many segments of our workforce face additional hurdles, from a lack of women holding C-Suite leadership to hiring and promotional practices that overlook visible minorities to discrimination based on personal beliefs or mental health issues. Progress in this area has been determined but slow to yield results, that is, until the events of last summer.
In the wake of significant instances of overt and systemic racism over the last 18 months, consumers and activists across the globe are now not only taking public and government institutions to task but entities across the organizational spectrum as well. Enterprise companies, in particular, are being called out for long-standing issues with a lack of diversity at the upper-management and leadership levels.
As a response, dedicated initiatives to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion are becoming the norm. Also known as DEI practices, these are concrete steps that organizations can take to increase the presence of traditionally marginalized individuals. According to the groundbreaking Cooperative Extension initiative out of Tuskegee University, the core tenets of DEI practices
are as follows:
Diversity: Ensuring the presence of groups where individuals of different racial, gender, religious, ethnic, sexual, financial, and political backgrounds, as well as those across the ability spectrum, have representation.
Equity: Promoting organizational systems and structures where processes, procedures, and resources are dispensed in an equitable manner that addresses the core causes of disparate outcomes in society.
Inclusivity: Ensuring that every individual is afforded the opportunity to fully participate in the organization, regardless of their background, personal experiences, and ability.
These three tenets are the foundation for organizations to structure certain policies and programs that help address a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In addition to creating a work environment that actively challenges some of the prevalent systemic issues in our society, these initiatives are also very helpful when it comes to improving performance metrics across the different departments of an organization.
The original organizational diversity training (DT) programs were born out of civil rights movements and affirmative action initiatives in the mid-to-late 20th century, with the goal of creating businesses that fully integrated members of minority social groups. Companies used various methods to attract and retain minority employees, including:
- Hiring protocols geared towards specific groups like women and BIPOC
- Lecture- and seminar-based events at the team, department, and organizational level.
- Tests and surveys assessing the presence of implicit and overt bias.
- Tests and surveys assessing the effectiveness of diversity training lectures.
- Group case studies reviewing examples of workplace prejudice
Although there is a large base of academic and professional research
into the practice of diversity training (DT), the results of these initiatives are often small and short-lived. Immediate surveys following DT often show an improvement in employee awareness and understanding of issues. Still, the follow-up shows that answers revert back to normal in as short as a few months. Clearly, there is something about the traditional, established methods of diversity training that lends itself to a high rate of failure.
There’s a growing body of research that supports the implementation of DEI practices in various workplace contexts. From helping address staffing issues to improving customer interactions and retention, there are numerous benefits to creating more diversity in the workplace. Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion within the organizational context is much more than just a performative gesture for customers, employees, and shareholders; it’s an active investment in better business outcomes.
Both history and statistics show that people should be wary of the recent flood of investment into DEI initiatives and practices at the institutional level. Advertising campaigns and keynote speakers make for great photo-ops and news clips, but there is little evidence to show that they produce sustained results. So, despite all the noise and performative action, it’s likely that many of the enterprises that announced new diversity, equity, and inclusion programs over the past 18 months will not achieve their goals.
One of the main reasons for this is that companies are not implementing these programs in the right place. Company-wide initiatives centered around presentations and workshops help bring awareness and attention to the issue, but they are too high-level and conceptual to result in lasting, impactful change. These programs are often also rolled out in a manner that doesn’t materially address diversity issues at the managerial and leadership level.
In addition to knowing where to implement these programs, it is just as important to know how to implement them. As experts, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev
say, “You Can’t Just Outlaw Bias.” Mass data analysis from numerous large firms finds that aggressive measures to get rid of discrimination — such as obligate training seminars, tests and surveys, and reporting systems — are actually generally more hurtful than helpful. These methods turn DEI into an adversarial issue where majority and minority groups are turned against one another, especially at the managerial level.
Mentorship, whether it’s in a 1-to-1 or group format, is one of the most impactful methods for making substantive changes to diversity, equity, and inclusion at the enterprise level. In addition to the individual benefits that it affords to the employees who act as mentors and mentees, mentoring programs also establish an organizational commitment to increasing the representation of marginalized individuals at the leadership level. It’s well established that mentors and mentees experience a higher rate of promotion and upward movement within organizations. Investing in the development of minority employees’ ownership shows that they are truly invested in creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive company.
Here are some of the main reasons why mentoring is a foundational component of any DEI program:
- Active Challenging of Implicit Bias
Implicit bias is a pervasive issue in society. While it is often highlighted as negatively impacting racial minorities, these cognitive hang-ups also work against individuals from all societal categories — be it a geographic region, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or disability. Mentoring programs help break down these preconceived notions by bringing diverse individuals together with the common goal of improving workplace performance.
- Strengthening of Organizational Connections
From as far back as the late ’80s, researchers have known that there is a communication disconnect between the predominantly white male executives within companies and the more diverse employees that make up the lower ranks. They are also the demographic that is most likely to seek out mentoring relationships on their own, while females and other minority groups tend to find these connections through established programs.
By creating a mentoring program that promotes more connection between executives, upper management, and the rest of the workforce, the enterprise social network becomes much more inclusive, paving the pathway for a more representative leadership pipeline.
- Improving the Diversity of Leadership
While diversity at the C-suite level is beginning to reflect the representation of the overall workforce more accurately, there is still much work that needs to be done. Many minority professionals still report that they face additional barriers when it comes to moving up the organizational ladder, and the numbers bear that out
. A close working relationship with someone who has succeeded at the highest level is beneficial for any developing professional, but it’s particularly important for those who are from marginalized communities. By adopting the right formal structure, mentoring programs are found to be quite effective
at improving the movement of minority mentees into leadership positions.
Mentoring as a DEI Solution
The beneficial effects that mentorship has on diverse representation within the organizational setting also creates a positive feedback loop that in turn helps improve the efficacy of mentoring programs. This means that, in addition to being improved by mentoring initiatives, the enhancement to minority leadership representation also improves the efficacy of the mentoring initiative itself.
One of the most common places for organizations to implement their DEI programs is at the entry-level. Many companies use hiring quotas and other metrics to ensure that they employ talent that spans the spectrums of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and ability. College and university recruitment programs, for instance, are becoming a more common strategy that enterprises use to identify minority talent that has the skills and training to thrive within the organizational setting. However, this is just the bare minimum when it comes to implementing diversity and inclusion practices throughout the company.
Managerial positions are a gateway that leads to positions higher up the organizational ladder. They are often not as diverse as they need to be, especially when companies are looking to initiate a mentorship program. Companies that leverage mentoring programs to improve representation
at the managerial position can improve the representation of ethnic and racial minorities and women by up to 25%.
The question of where to implement DEI-infused mentorship solutions is also becoming more difficult thanks to the globalization of large enterprises and the increasing tendency for remote-hybrid work structures. Whereas junior employees used to have a physical structure where they could form connections with potential mentors, the current professional landscape now has teams working together from different countries and even continents.
Thankfully, the same technologies that are disrupting the old mentoring methods are now giving way to innovative new methodologies.
MentorCloud and Global DEI Mentorship
With the rapid development of new technologies and the fast pace of business, it can be very difficult for mentors and mentees to find time for those essential sit-downs that form the bedrock of effective mentorship. This is particularly true for marginalized employees that face additional cultural and systemic barriers to professional development. Add in the variable of remote work, and it seems all but impossible for DEI mentorship to occur.
This is the exact pain point that MentorCloud is designed to fill.
With a customizable program design, easy-to-use interface, and enhanced AI and analytics features, the MentorCloud platform is perfect for any stakeholders looking to improve their enterprise’s diversity, equity, and inclusion through mentorship. Chief People Officers and human resources leadership can use this mentoring software to create a mentorship program that is built on the core tenets of DEI — even in completely remote environments.
Minority employees seeking to move up through the organizational ranks can now access a plethora of potential mentors based on their priorities and goals. Whether it’s finding a mentor with similar lived experience, someone who has achieved a high level of domain-specific success, or simply someone that they view as a role model, the MentorCloud system provides the perfect digital structure for successful mentoring relationships. And for those who aren’t quite sure what they are looking for in a potential guide, AI matching can help determine the ideal fit.