One of the major reasons why organizations implement mentoring programs is to foster an appreciation for diversity with its challenges and promises. In other words, to get people talking and communicating about this incredibly important issue.
But even though managing diversity in the workplace might be your mentoring program's primary goal, that doesn’t necessarily mean an actual conversation around diversity will spontaneously happen between mentors and mentorees.
Some people aren't comfortable with a direct approach to having that discussion and you certainly can’t force people to have such a conversation.
So what should you do?
You need to verbally articulate to your mentors and mentorees that such a discussion is encouraged. Because diversity, especially today, is such a charged word, one has to be given “permission,” if you will, that it’s ok to deal with the uncomfortableness and anxiety about how this conversation will play out.
Encouraging people to start this conversation early on in the mentoring relationship is essential. We recommend broaching it during the first meeting between mentors and mentorees, but we also recommend using a soft touch so that it doesn't feel forced or contrived.
When we train, we bring pairs together to guide them through their first conversation. As part of that process, we have each person interview their partner with fun facts: first job, most interesting vacation, where born, etc. Then, the person presents their partner to the larger group. This marks the beginning of a conversation where the mentor/mentoree learns about the other person. In this way, you are already exploring diversity. From there, it’s an easy jump to elaborate further on some of these facts and to delve into issues regarding diversity. It also helps the mentors and mentorees find common ground in which to build the mentoring relationship.
Over the course of time, as the pairs deepen their trust with each other, a more in-depth conversation about being a diverse individual can ensue. And that's when the real magic starts to happen.
It has been my experience over the years that when such conversations are held, both partners have a greater understanding of the real challenges. The mentors and mentorees often go on to become the company's unofficial diversity advocates by looking at the cultural issues within the organization that prevent a person of diversity from achieving full potential.
Regardless of whether your mentoring program is focused on diversity or some other issue, like talent management, pairs should be encouraged to explore the myriad facets of each person’s background as a way to better understand each other.
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