Lara Mulawka

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How to set up a reciprocal mentoring program for employee engagement

When thinking of mentoring, what comes to mind is a seasoned executive giving advice to a younger person just starting their career.

The older, more experienced person has probably faced just about any issue the younger worker might come up against, and can give great advice on how to handle difficult situations and manage office politics. However, there are many instances where the younger generation has the experience and knowledge that the older generation may not have, such as in technology and social media.

Reverse mentoring program

In a reverse mentoring program, the younger generation provides advice to the older generation. Advances in both hardware and software happen almost daily, and for many people it’s hard to keep up when it’s so much easier to just do things the way they’ve always been done. In a reciprocal mentoring program the employees take turns mentoring each other, rather than the advice going only in one direction.

Reciprocal mentoring to increase cultural awareness

Reciprocal mentoring can also be used to learn to see the world from another point of view in order to increase cultural awareness. Savvy companies are introducing mentoring programs to foster inclusion and diversity in the workplace, and to remove bias from hiring, promotions and other decision making. When you can speak casually outside a manager-employee relationship, people might be more willing to open up and see the world from another point of view.

In the 1990s Procter & Gamble conducted employee surveys that found promising women managers were leaving the company not because of promotion opportunities and better pay, but because they were not feeling valued in their job. They wanted to hear that their contributions were being recognized and what their future career options might be. So the company implemented Mentoring Up to help educate upper management to these gender differences and increase the amount of communication taking place.

Eli Lilly also implemented a program that pairs LGBTQ employees with senior managers across the company so they can learn from each other and create an environment that helps everyone succeed.

Engineering firm Mott MacDonald in the UK sponsored a mentoring program that pairs senior managers with colleagues on lower levels of the hierarchy who are from diverse backgrounds, are LGBTQ, or are disabled. They found that most senior leaders did not have diversity in their own backgrounds, so were less likely to add those who are “different” to their personal network.

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when planning a reciprocal mentoring program in your company:

  1. Don’t just announce the program as a done deal

    Before implementation, get employee feedback on the proposal and form an advisory committee consisting of people from various departments, age groups and backgrounds. The committee could meet with an HR representative to help propose which employees might be paired up.

  2. Establish goals

    The advisory committee, along with company management, should decide what they specifically want to achieve with the program. For example, do they want the more technically advanced employees and social media users to help train those who are not? Or is the goal to encourage collaboration and communication among colleagues from different backgrounds? The more you can quantify what you hope to achieve with a reciprocal mentoring program, the more effective it will be.

  3. Make it voluntary

    If employees feel forced into the program they will not participate enthusiastically with an open mind. They will see the program as “window dressing” so the company can claim they are encouraging diversity, as opposed to a sincere effort to be able to learn from each other.

  4. Offer a training program before implementation

    All participants should attend a brief training session to set expectations and discuss the goals of the program. They can plan to take turns being the mentor and mentee, such as switching off at every other meeting. Goals should be set together, and they can then hold each other accountable. The person in the mentor role doesn’t have to know everything about everything, but rather can suggest other experts and resources to pursue. The training will be an excellent time for participants to ask questions and bring up any concerns.

  5. Make it clear it’s not a remedial program

    Employees shouldn’t think they said or did something wrong and that is why they are being asked to participate in a reciprocal mentoring program. The company is simply encouraging knowledge sharing and employees learning from each other’s experience.

  6. Start small and grow slowly

    You might start with pairing people up based on age and knowledge of technology, and later encourage reciprocal mentor relationships based on race, gender, LGBTQ and other protected characteristics.

  7. Keep it casual and fun!

    An occasional lunch or after work get together is a great way to celebrate all that has been accomplished, and gives the participants a chance to share what they have learned from each other. Everyone can comment on what worked well in the program and make suggestions for ongoing improvements.

  8. Evaluate results

    It can be challenging to measure the success of reciprocal mentoring as it involves changing people’s behavior and attitudes. The advisory committee, along with HR, could develop an anonymous survey that all participants would fill out at the end of four to six months. It would include questions about what they learned, whether or not any stereotypes were broken, and how their assumptions about different types of people might have been changed.

Reciprocal mentoring can work well for the same reasons traditional mentoring does. Employees can become more culturally aware, learn new skills and increase their creative thinking. Whether it is a more formal, company-wide process or an impromptu session between employees, reciprocal mentoring can help employees feel valued at work and they will be more likely to stay with the company long term.


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