It’s time to get rid of reverse mentoring

A young businessman mentoring a more senior business woman
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In a culture where continuous, on-the-job learning for all ages is encouraged, the term 'reverse mentoring' is archaic and potentially damaging. But why exactly is this the case?

A term that was coined by Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, almost 20 years ago, ‘reverse mentoring’ is still being used in various industries.

The concept is quite simple. What began as a way for younger, more tech-savvy workers to mentor executives on technology has been adapted to a multitude of topics between younger and older colleagues.

As an advocate for personal and professional development through on-the-job learning, I believe anyone has something to teach someone, and anyone can learn from anyone. The fact that the concept of ‘reverse mentoring’ is fast becoming more recognised within organisations is fantastic news.

Barriers are being broken down meaning those in higher positions can still learn from their colleagues, regardless of rank and age.

This is a widely written-about topic but some come with questionable titles:

I list these to demonstrate how the concept of ‘reverse mentoring’ has leeched into the language used, not to slate the articles themselves.

Juniors. Seniors. Millennials. Old dogs.

It’s the sort of language that can be damaging for organisations, and as HR and L&D professionals, it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re not sending out the wrong message that contradicts the culture, values or practices when using language like this.

The problem with the term ‘reverse mentoring’

With a multigenerational workforce being the norm nowadays, does the term ‘reverse mentoring’ have a place within it? The first article mentioned above talks about “the alliance between juniors and seniors” – should we not already be working in alliance?

Well-known author Michael Armstrong’s definition of mentoring is:

“[..].] the process of using specially selected and trained individuals (mentors) to provide guidance, pragmatic advice and continuing support which will help the person or persons allocated to learn and develop.” (Armstrong, 2017. Armstrong’s handbook of human resource management practice. Kogan Page 14th edition)

In my opinion, this is a healthy and accurate approach to mentoring, one that implies buddying someone who has a specific skill gap with someone who can help them fill it.

What may have been appropriate almost two decades ago is no longer the case.

Notice how there is no mention of age or seniority. There are no set parameters that the mentor and mentee need to fit within.

My issue around the term ‘reverse mentoring’ is that it places such a strong emphasis on these irrelevant parameters which provide no variant, benefit or influence to the mentorship.  

Essentially, the terminology suggests it stops being ‘mentoring’ and becomes ‘reverse mentoring’ when one is younger than the other, or one is more junior than the other.

The damage

This has huge damage potential for organisations who are working hard on fostering an inclusive, multigenerational and open workforce.

What may have been appropriate almost two decades ago is no longer the case. Work has changed since then. Innovative and exciting new ways of working have been introduced.

There’s less emphasis on hierarchy, and for organisations who are trying to empower their employees and advocate more modern L&D practices like informal, on-the-job training, using this term will subliminally undo all the hard work.

Even in typical career progression mentorships, where it makes sense that someone in a higher position mentors those in more junior positions, they may not necessarily be older than them, nor will they themselves not have anything to learn from their mentee.

We all learn in different ways and can learn from anyone who has the information, guidance and perspective we need for a specific knowledge or skill gap.

If your organisation puts a lot of emphasis on unconscious bias training, using the term ‘reverse mentoring’ is also contradictory to its efforts.

The term itself is based on an unconscious bias; it’s based on an assumption that ‘regular’ mentoring (ie not reversed) is only from colleagues who are older than their mentee, so it stands to reason, according to Welch, that it is reversed when the mentor is younger or more junior than the mentee.

The bias towards the ages of a mentor and their mentee might slip through the net without detection, but to proudly use the term ‘reverse mentoring’ only brings the unconscious biasness to light in quite an insulting way.

From a legal perspective, I’d also question the morality of using the term ‘reverse mentoring’ which is based on either age, or seniority which, on average, is linked to age.

With the lack of objective justification – ie the employer being able to show good reason for age discrimination – this could potentially leave the organisation open for cases of age discrimination where a younger or ‘junior’ employee feels as though they are being treated less favourably if they are the mentor in a ‘reversed mentoring’ relationship; it might be perceived by them that they were seen as initially having nothing to offer in terms of mentoring.

The solution

Get rid of the term ‘reverse mentoring’. Where there is someone learning from another, this is mentoring (amongst other variations, but for the sake of this article, I’ll stick with ‘mentoring’). No disclosure of age or position needed.

As HR and L&D professionals, it’s up to us to facilitate a large number of (if not all) people-related initiatives, and ensure these are rolled out in a sensible and effective way. Reinforcing an unconsciously biased assumption like ‘reverse mentoring’ may miss the mark on the effective facilitation and may face employee scrutiny.

Will you be able to answer the question “Why are you classing this as reversed mentoring?” without relying on outdated assumptions?

Instead, we can reinforce the notion that anyone can learn from anyone without putting specific labels, or reversed labels to it.

Yes experience can come from years. It can also be muddied over said years, or stick within certain self-imposed limits.

Experience can also come from curiosity and a penchant for experimentation, which younger workers have bags of. But, granted, these may not always lead to the right answers.

My point is we all learn in different ways and can learn from anyone who has the information, guidance and perspective we need for a specific knowledge or skill gap. Embrace it as it is without damaging it with morally ambiguous labels.

Interested in finding out more about the topic? Read about the five pitfalls to consider before setting up a mentoring scheme.

About Charles Goff-Deakins Assoc CIPD

Charles Goff-Deakins portrait

Charles Goff-Deakins is an associate member of CIPD and works as a senior HR officer, having a particular interest in HR policy, learning and development, and employee engagement. As well as writing for HR Zone, Charles also writes about career management and professional development on his blog The Avid Doer

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