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Workplace Mentoring: It’s all Good!

Information on workplace mentoring

From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Lead Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team


What is a mentor? The dictionary defines a mentor as someone who is an experienced and trusted advisor, counselor, coach, or guide.

How does workplace mentoring work? Workplace mentoring is a learning partnership between employees for purposes of sharing information, knowledge, and insight in all aspects of employment.  

While mentoring is beneficial for any new employee, it may be particularly so for individuals with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities may have difficulties with social skills, interpreting social cues, and understanding workplace rules, particularly those that are unspoken. A mentor who can build a good relationship with the employee can guide him through the social aspects of the workplace. Think of what may be daunting to a new employee: new expectations, new policies and procedures, new people and personalities, and new daily developments and demands from co-workers and supervisors.

But mentoring is not only beneficial to new employees. The guidance, support, and encouragement of a mentor during times of transition may help a current employee process new information, gain confidence, persevere through challenges, and manage stress. A mentor can help the employee determine the best strategies to improve both performance and conduct. The mentor can also help the employee consider various options when faced with tough decisions and identify, minimize, and/or eliminate potential hurdles to progress. As a result of a close working relationship, mentors may be able to help employees identify and request effective accommodations in the workplace that can help ensure their success.

Let’s look at some of the positive aspects associated with mentoring in the workplace. It is not only the person being mentored who reaps the benefits.

Benefits to the Employee

An employee benefits from a mentoring relationship because he has someone with greater knowledge and experience to turn to for guidance. He may learn how an organization is structured and operates; for an employee with a disability this may not always be obvious. He may also learn about and adjust to the culture of a new workplace environment from someone who’s been there and knows.

Although a mentor won't do the employee's job for him, the mentor helps the employee develop skills or competencies by demonstrating a task, guiding the employee through solving a problem, or critiquing the employee's work. Consistent feedback is crucial for individuals who may have difficulty evaluating their own progress.

A mentor may help an employee feel less isolated at work, too, and encourage him to interact more with others. For individuals with disabilities who have social anxieties and difficulty interacting with others, improving interpersonal relationship skills is vital.

A mentor can also provide an employee with tips on career growth and may provide important networking contacts by introducing the employee to other professionals.

Benefits to the Mentor

Mentors gain from the mentoring relationship too. The opportunity to teach or advise others can increase the mentor's confidence, self-worth, and her own job satisfaction. Mentoring may also provide an increased sense of purpose and responsibility for her own career and may prepare her to take on greater responsibilities and leadership roles.

A mentor who is required to listen to the concerns of another employee may develop a better understanding of employee issues and build stronger communication skills. The opportunity to assist others from different areas or departments can widen the mentor’s knowledge of the organization.

Mentoring can improve supervisory skills, including relationship-building, planning, and problem-solving.

Even if a mentored employee were to leave the organization, the mentor and mentee may maintain a professional relationship. This may broaden the mentor's reputation and connections.

Benefits to the Employer

The employer of a mentored employee benefits from greater productivity in the workplace. As employees trust in their mentors for advice, they make fewer errors on the job, decreasing employer losses. Training costs may be lowered as well due to the one-on-one interactions between the mentor and the mentee. Mentoring increases teamwork among employees from different generations and cultural backgrounds.

Employees in mentoring relationships tend to have greater job satisfaction as well, which can mean a more positive work environment and greater employee retention. Employers might notice less turnover of employees as workers feel a greater loyalty to the company.

Mentoring informs others both in and outside of the organization that leadership is willing to invest in its employees, creating an environment of acceptance and inclusion.

An organization might even use its mentoring program to attract new employees. Applicants and new hires may be encouraged by the employer’s career development opportunities.

Several years ago at the National APSE Conference, an employer named Mike Erwin from Tailored Label Products won an award for being a visionary employer and leader who carries out the mission of APSE. The mission of APSE in simplest terms is the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace and in the community. The award was given for the mentoring program developed at Mike’s company. He made a statement at the awards dinner that I believe is so important to consider. His statement really got me to thinking about how important mentoring is – not just to the employee being mentored, but to the employee doing the mentoring. He said that if employees weren’t mentoring other employees, they were just working. I love that statement! Read an interview with Mike Erwin from a guest blog/interview.

JAN consultants hear many positive and successful examples of mentoring in the workplace. We find it is helpful to pass those examples along for others to see how mentoring might be effective for situations in which they find themselves, their coworkers, or their employees.

Del, a new employee at a fast food restaurant, was doing a great job of cleaning tables when needed, but in-between times left him standing around not knowing what to do, and getting in the way.

After observing Del and trying to figure out how best to help him, the crew manager determined that a more experienced member of the crew had developed a rapport with Del. The manager worked with this crew member to develop an informal mentoring relationship. A relationship did develop and Del was able to learn the full scope of his job tasks from the more experienced crew member, get his questions answered, and become a more focused, diligent employee.

Charlie, who was hired by a country club, was having difficulty initiating the tasks he was responsible for at the start of the day. Extended training on how to do the tasks, along with a task list in picture form, were not successful motivators.

The general manager noticed that a friendship had developed between the new employee and a much older employee. The employee described the relationship as a grandfatherly one. The employee began to mentor Charlie by doing periodic “checks” on him during the mornings, something the general manager wasn’t able to do. The response was very positive and Charlie worked successfully, seemingly eager to please his new friend.

Jacqueline had a successful history of working in retail, but was returning to work after being out for many years due to issues with major depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. She was beginning work at a part-time level and requested a mentor to help her. Jacqueline felt that her retail skills, especially her people/interpersonal skills were lacking because she had been home for so long. She really didn’t have much confidence in herself or her abilities.  

Her employer saw no problems with providing her with a mentor, a woman who the employee claimed was young enough to be her daughter. The younger employee had excellent interpersonal skills, was adept at her sales job, and had formed a rather quick positive relationship with Jacqueline. Jacqueline was actually quite encouraged that the younger woman would be interested in helping her and felt she would benefit from her mentor’s guidance.

Juan, a newly hired employee in a large office setting, disclosed that he had higher-functioning autism. His difficulties included both social anxiety and interactions with others.

A mentor helped Juan acclimate to the workplace. Juan’s department was very large, with many new people to meet. The mentor helped introduce Juan to people slowly – not everyone all at one time, and certainly not everyone in one day. The mentor gave Juan a brief bit of information about each employee so he was better able to make connections. She also created an informal directory with photos and some identifying information on each co-worker. Some basic information on where each employee worked and the jobs they did helped. She also made a chart of where each co-workers’ work space was located. Juan reported that he had reduced anxiety and his ability to interact with his co-workers was improving.

Our last example is a situation in which you might not think of mentoring as being a viable solution: 

Baker, an individual with severe social anxiety, was the owner of a landscaping business and in need of a mentor (or mentors) who understood both her business and disability issues. She had good and bad days and needed guidance on how to remain effective on the bad days. She wanted help with communication strategies as well as improved organization. One option she considered was outsourcing some business tasks to help reduce stress. For this guidance, she planned to investigate organizations like Small Business Administration (SBA) affiliated programs such as her local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) or a Women’s Business Center (WBC). There are also programs such as the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) or Micromentor that could match her with a business mentor. She also considered a specialized coach familiar with disability issues to assist her with stress management on difficult days and improving her communication skills. Baker used the resources JAN provided to search for a team from among mentors with expertise in the different areas.

It’s all good! So if you have questions about mentoring in the workplace or any other accommodations, please contact JAN for assistance. 

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