Mentors are individuals with advanced experience and knowledge who take a personal interest in helping the careers and advancement of their protégés. Mentors may or may not be in their protégés' chain of command, be employed in the same organization as their protégés, or even be in the same field as their protégés. Mentoring relationships may range from focusing exclusively on the protégé's job functions to being a close friendship that becomes one of the most important relationships in the protégé's life.

Most mentoring relationships are informal, and develop on the basis of mutual identification and the fulfillment of career needs. The mentor may see the protégé as a "diamond in the rough" or a younger version of him or herself, while the protégé, may view the mentor as a competent role model with valued knowledge, skills and abilities. Members of mentoring relationships often report a mutual attraction or chemistry that sparks the development of the relationship.

According to Kathy Kram, mentors provide two primary types of behaviors or roles. First, they provide career development roles, which involve coaching, sponsoring advancement, providing challenging assignments, protecting protégés from adverse forces, and fostering positive visibility. Second, mentors provide psychosocial roles, which involve personal support, friendship, counseling, acceptance, and role modeling. A given mentor may engage in some or all of these roles and these roles may not only vary from relationship to relationship, but may also vary over time in a given relationship.

Kram observes that mentoring relationships pass through four phases: initiation, cultivation, separation, and redefinition. The relationship develops during the initiation and cultivation stages. In initiation, the mentor and protégé meet and first begin to know a little about each other. The real learning occurs in the cultivation stage, where the mentor helps the protégé to grow and develop. The separation stage is typically reached after two to five years, and the relationship may terminate because of physical separation, or because the members no longer need one another. Research indicates that the majority of mentoring relationships end because of physical separation. After separation, the members of the relationship may redefine their relationship as a peer relationship, or may terminate their relationship entirely.


Mentoring relationships are related to a variety of positive organizational and career outcomes. A number of different research studies indicate that mentored individuals have higher levels of mobility on the job, recognition, promotion, and compensation. Also, employees with mentors report higher levels of learning on the job than those without mentors. Additionally, research indicates that employees with positive mentoring experiences typically feel higher levels of pay satisfaction, career satisfaction, and organizational commitment. Finally, research indicates that the lower levels of turnover that occur with mentored individuals are due, in part, to their higher levels of organizational commitment that may be brought about by the mentoring relationship.

A recent meta-analysis (a statistical technique that combines results from numerous studies to give an "average" finding) conducted by Allen, Eby, Poteet, Lentz, and Lima in 2004 supports these findings. In their analysis of 43 individual studies, they found that individuals who had been mentored had better career outcomes from both career-related and psychosocial mentoring; they were more satisfied with their careers, believed strongly that they would advance in their careers, and were committed to their careers. The meta-analysis indicated that mentored individuals also had better compensation and more promotions that those employees without mentors.

Mentoring relationships may also be beneficial for the mentor. Mentors have reported more benefits than costs to being a mentor, research indicates that key benefits to mentors included a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, recognition from others, career and job renewal, and support from their protégés.

Finally, mentoring relationships may be beneficial for the organization. Mentoring relationships are a powerful tool for socializing new employees, for increasing organizational commitment, and for reducing unwanted turnover. Mentoring relationships can foster innovation and revitalize mentors who have reached career plateaus. Because members of the relationship may share different insights and perspectives regarding organizational and societal cultures, mentoring relationships may also be useful in mergers and in international organizations.


Although mentoring relationships are important for all organizational members, they are essential for women and employees of color. Mentors can help these individuals overcome barriers to advancement in organizations and break through the "glass ceiling," the invisible barrier to advancement based on gender biases. Research indicates that a full 91 percent of the female executives surveyed in a Catalyst study reported having a mentor, and the majority of respondents identified mentoring as a key strategy used to break through the glass ceiling.

A mentor can buffer women and people of color from both overt and covert forms of discrimination, and help them navigate the obstacle course to the executive suite. By conferring legitimacy on their female and minority protégés, mentors can alter stereotypic perceptions and send the message that the protégé has the mentor's powerful support and backing. Research indicates that mentors provide "reflected power" to their protégés, and use their influence to build their protégé's power in the organization. Mentors can train their female and minority protégés in the "ins and outs" of corporate politics and provide valuable information on job openings and changes in the organization-information that is typically provided in the "old boys' network."

Although most research indicates that women and people of color are as likely as their majority counterparts to have mentors, women reported greater barriers to getting a mentor than men. Research showed that women were more likely than men to report that mentors were unwilling to mentor them, that supervisors and coworkers would disapprove of the relationship, that they had less access to mentors, and that they were hesitant to initiate the relationship for fear that their efforts would be misconstrued as being sexual by either the mentor or others in the organization. In spite of these reported barriers, women were as likely as men actually to have a mentor, suggesting that women overcame these barriers in order to develop these important relationships. Similarly, other mentoring research indicates that African American protégés were more likely than Caucasian protégés to go outside their departments and formal lines of authority to develop mentoring relationships with higher ranking mentors of the same race. These studies indicate that women and minorities recognize the importance of mentors and are willing to overcome barriers to gaining this critical developmental relationship.

Another obstacle faced by female and minority protégés is that they are more likely than their majority counterparts to be in a "diversified mentoring relationship." Diversified mentoring relationships are composed of mentors and protégés who differ on one or more group memberships associated with power. Because of the scarcity of female and minority mentors at higher organizational ranks, female and minority protégés are more likely than their majority counterparts to be in cross-gender or cross-race relationships. These relationships provide limited role modeling functions, functions that are particularly important for women and employees of color. In addition, individuals in cross-gender relationships are less likely to engage in close friendship and social roles that involve after-work networking activities because of the threat or appearance of romantic involvement.

Female and minority protégés face a certain catch 22: even if they find a female or minority mentor who can provide role modeling functions these mentors may be restricted in helping them advance since women and people of color has less power in organizations than their majority counterparts. In sum, majority protégés obtain mentors who can provide more functions than minority or female protégés, and these functions in turn lead to increased power and more promotions, thus perpetuating the cycle.

One area of diversity that has received recent research attention is the role of age in mentoring relationships. Age has become a more important workplace issues as the large group of American baby boomers ages. Experts suggest that mentors be 8-15 years (a half generation) older than their protégés, so that the age difference is not as large as that of parent and child, and not so small that the mentor and protégé act more as peers. However, not all mentoring relationships have this age span. Research indicates that the mentoring experience differs for protégés based on their age, with younger protégés receiving more career-related mentoring than older protégés.


In recognition of the benefits of mentoring relationships, many organizations attempt to replicate informal mentoring relationships by creating formal mentoring programs. One key difference between formal and informal mentoring relationships is that informal relationships develop spontaneously, whereas formal mentoring relationships develop with organizational assistance or intervention-usually in the form of voluntary assignment or matching of mentors and protégés. A second distinction is that formal relationships are usually of much shorter duration than informal relationships; formal relationships are usually contracted to last less than a year.

Although many organizations assume that formal relationships are as effective as informal relationships, existing research indicates that this is not the case. Georgia Chao and her associates found that protégés with formal mentoring relationships received less compensation than protégés with informal relationships. Other studies suggest that formal protégés not only received less compensation than informal protégés, but they also reported less psychosocial and career development functions and less satisfaction with their mentors than informal protégés. In fact, individuals with formal mentors did not receive more compensation or promotions than individuals who were not mentored. These researchers also found that women received fewer benefits from formal mentors than men did, indicating that female protégés may have the least to gain form entering a formal mentoring relationship. This research indicates that formal mentors are not a substitute for informal mentoring relationships.

In conclusion, organizations can create an environment that fosters mentoring relationships by structuring diverse work teams that span departmental and hierarchical lines and by increasing informal opportunities for networking and interaction. Organizations can increase the pool of diverse mentors by structurally integrating women and minorities into powerful positions across ranks and departments, and by rewarding these relationships in performance appraisals and salary decisions.


Although there are numerous potential benefits for both the mentor and protégé from the mentoring relationship, it is not always a positive experience. Researchers have identified dysfunctional mentoring relationships in which the needs of either the mentor or protégé are not being met, or the relationship is causing some distress to either of the parties. Negative experiences that have been identified:

SEE ALSO: Diversity ; Knowledge Management ; Training Delivery Methods ; Women and Minorities in Management

Belle Rose Ragins

Revised by Marcia Simmering


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