Report: This is how mentors choose their protégés

Anyone who’s been lucky enough to have a mentor knows how important it can be to have that support base.

For years, companies have tried to control their implicit biases while selecting candidates. When we look at the pipeline problems in major industries, at least some of the lack of diversity is thanks to human error — hiring managers and recruiters prefer job seekers who remind them of themselves. And in some ways, that makes sense; of course, we connect more with people who enjoy the same hobbies, went to the same college, or share other commonalities with us.

Where it gets dicey, though, is that often times those in leadership positions are white men from affluent backgrounds who went to upper echelon schools. And so when they look to see a reflection of themselves in a future employee, they exclude a huge swathe of the population who do not share biological and socioeconomic traits with them.

And it turns out that those implicit biases don’t end with our hiring practices — they take hold when we assess current employees as well.

Anyone who’s been lucky enough to have a mentor knows how important it can be to have that support base. Plus, there’s always the feeling that somehow we’re special because we were the chosen ones. But it turns out that the reason most of our mentors picked us out of the pack had little to do with our individuality. In fact, quite the opposite.

New research from the New York-based think tank Center for Talent Innovation has found that 71% of “sponsors” say their main protégé is the same race or gender as they are. This “mini-me syndrome” means that men gravitate toward men and women toward women. White mentors will be more inclined to choose white mentees, and altogether, the phenomenon means that more of the same kind of people will likely continue to thrive in any given company.

That lack of diversity isn’t good for anyone, including the mentors themselves. A mere 17% of sponsors believe their main protégés have a valuable management style that diverges from the one they use, which means that mentors everywhere are missing out on more singular perspectives that could contribute to their own professional success.

This research comes at a time when advocates for workplace gender equality have been concerned about the cooling effect the #MeToo movement is having on men mentoring women. The national survey that CTI analyzed took place in January 2018, soon after #MeToo made headlines, and indicates that there was very little mentorship going on between men and women without even considering men’s recent fears to work alongside their more junior female colleagues.

Another surprising discovery from CTI’s research is that only 27% of sponsors advocate for their mentees’ promotions. Though the simple process of learning from a more senior person in the field proves invaluable for many employees, a lot of mentees are also banking on their mentors putting in a good word so they can climb the corporate ladder as well.

All of this may be a lot to process right now, and it could be a good time to step back and reflect. For the mentors out there, an honest self-analysis of why you chose the mentee you did can go a long way in exercising self-awareness and helping to inform decisions moving forward.

And for the mentees, it may be worth coming up with a strategy to ask your sponsor for words of support when that next big promotion comes open. Then, it’ll be time to pay it forward to the next junior-level employee who could use some guidance. Maybe, when it’s your turn, you’ll be smart enough to choose someone who doesn’t remind you of yourself at all.

Alexandra Villarreal|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at avillarreal@theladders.com.