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Vanessa James

SA Law LLP

Head of Employment

Read more about Vanessa James

How should HR deal with mentoring arrangements?

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Mentoring can take place in different ways – either internally within a business (senior staff mentoring junior staff), staff providing mentoring to external beneficiaries and the employer bringing in mentors from outside the business to support staff.  All of these possibilities have different implications, benefits and risks to the employer. Perhaps the main benefit to both mentor and beneficiary are normally attached to progression and development on both sides which then leads into a progressive and, hopefully more productive workforce and culture with staff being actively supporting to achieve their career goals. However, there are some certain challenges for HR that transcend all the different ways in which mentoring can be relevant and arise in a business or organisation.  

The first step for HR in dealing with mentoring is to make a policy decision with the business leaders on how they want mentoring to operate. Ideally this process should include input from the learning and development part of the HR function as it will need to look at the desired outcomes and intended benefits that the mentoring is being established to address or improve. It is only in deciding what will be encouraged or not (and what the business wants) that the full remit of potential of mentoring can be addressed. The hazards in not defining these parameters are that an ad hoc approach can result in a business having staff distracted with mentoring that is neither useful nor effective for the business or the individual. 

Some mentoring may be formal and paid professional mentors are sometimes used and those ‘professional mentors’ can also contribute to the decision making process of what to offer and to whom.    

The next consideration is time. HR will need to have some way of policing the impact the mentoring relationship has on work time. This can be done more easily if the mentoring is being structured (i.e. a set amount to meetings over a period limited in time as might be the case if paid mentors are being bought in from outside) but might be more difficult where say the mentoring is being offered to external beneficiaries by staff. For example where a business (as part of its corporate social responsibility perhaps) encourages staff to mentor in a charitable setting, such as vulnerable young people, the demands that might be placed on the mentor’s time could be outside of their control. 

Another area of risk and possible animosity in the workforce is who is going to be included in the mentoring ‘project’.  If benefices of the mentoring are within the business then there may need to be some criteria from HR to determine who may apply for mentoring, when and on what grounds any such application is either accepted or rejected as it will be impossible to offer it to all staff.  In some instances employers may want to identify who they want to offer it to (rather than invite applications) but in doing so there still needs to be some objective criteria for who might be chosen.

Clarity around liability arising out of the mentor’s actions (and indeed protection for the mentor if they are ‘damaged’ by the actions of others) will also need to be considered, especially where the mentor is providing the support to an external beneficiary. This may need to be checked with the insurance broker in some cases.   

In terms of bringing in external mentors to support staff there may need to be some consideration of their terms of engagement.  If it is a paid for mentoring service then this would normally be ‘bought’ in the same way as any other professional service. However if the mentor is a volunteer then there may be more complex HR issues that need to considered as with any volunteer engagement – including the duty of care that the business will owe that volunteer. 

In some instances HR may look at a developmental strategy aimed at encouraging a culture of natural internal mentoring where senior staff naturally embrace that role with more junior staff in the working day.  Factors to consider here will be allegations of favouritism and bias (which could lead to discrimination claims or increased grievances) and so training managers who are expected to take on mentoring roles is also crucial – not just in this context but also across of the board of mentoring. 

There is no doubt that when established properly with clearly identified outcomes from the outset (where HR can provide valuable insight from a learning and development perspective), mentoring has numerous possibilities and positive benefits. HR should take the lead on first setting the strategy but also in setting up the operational policy on how mentoring will be managed on a day to day basis.  

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Vanessa James

Head of Employment

Read more from Vanessa James
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