The relationship between the workforce and jobs is evolving. Those shifts have taken the form of slow, plodding changes, as well as massive realignments as a result of global events. The rise of the sharing economy — and workers relying less on traditional full-time employment as opposed to a collection of gigs — has brought forth a global, and some would call existential, debate around the balance of flexibility with the protections of traditional employment, and whether it’s a job or the government’s role to provide those protections.
Surveys abound at the beginning of this year found that, despite the looming threat of a recession, more than 60 percent of U.S. workers were contemplating a job change in 2023, numbers that rise to 66 percent of millennials and 72 percent of Gen Z workers. And there has always been a direct and unsurprising link between age and job tenure, with baby boomers staying in roles more than three and a half times as long as Gen Zers.
Of course, COVID-19 catapulted large swathes of the world into remote and hybrid work, and while remote options aren’t as robust as they were at the height of the pandemic, most experts agree that we’re never going to reach the pre-pandemic levels of folks commuting to the office.
In short, the American worker is less connected to an institution as a part of their work than ever before. People with more expertise than me can speculate on whether that’s good or bad, but one thing about those trends is abundantly clear: the lack of institutional attachment is making it harder than ever to find workplace mentors.
Why Artificial Intelligence Is Not The Solution
That gap is being filled in part by artificial intelligence companies that claim to either enhance mentorship or take the place of a real person, but most of those tools at this point fail to replicate what’s unique about a flesh-and-blood mentor: long-term relationship-building, the trust developed over time, and for many workers — especially women, people of color, and people with disabilities, among others — the need for guidance from people who can speak to the particular challenges of navigating work as a person from an underrepresented community.
So while software may be poised to streamline mentorship-matching or the basics of coaching and advice-giving, person-to-person mentorship still matters for many, especially if companies want access to high-quality mentorship to be as equitable as possible.
3 Steps to Improve Access to Mentorship
Equity in mentorship matters because mentorship matters. Study after study after study confirms this, across all disciplines and geographies. But what the data also illustrates is that unless leaders take certain actions, mentorship isn’t equally fruitful or easy to come by for everyone — but when it is, the impact can be monumental.
According to an analysis from the University of California Haas School of Business, women benefit more from mentorship than men. And when thoughtfully considered, people of color can benefit more from mentorship than their white counterparts.
So how do companies make mentorship more accessible and, in turn, make it translate into more equitable outcomes across the work they do? Here are three keys to keep in mind.
Incentivize employee participation in mentorship programs
In order to ensure that mentorship programs don’t feel tacked on or superfluous on top of someone’s other job duties, leaders need to tie participation in mentorship programs to performance evaluations, raises, promotions, and all the other carrots that help people grow in their careers. Especially for potential mentors who are women or people of color, it’s unfair to expect them to add additional elements of emotional labor to their likely full plates without giving them the appropriate incentives — including direct compensation — to do so.
Give mentees the opportunity to choose mentors with certain identities
It’s imperative to allow mentees — those of whom tend to disproportionately be earlier in their career — to not only have access to mentors but also to find mentors who can help them navigate the unique challenges of being a woman or a person of color in the workplace. That might mean finding a mentor who is similar to you, with a shared set of cultural experiences and perspectives, or it might mean someone with an intentionally different set of experiences in order to learn from a well-placed ally. When mentors don’t have a diversity of identities, it can hurt outcomes for women and people of color.
Remember that it doesn’t end with mentorship
Mentorship is the process of creating awareness of the tools and the pathways for success. Even when people in underrepresented groups have those tools, there’s still the matter of navigating workplace barriers that arise in the form of systemic discrimination. So it’s key to recognize that mentorship is the beginning of the process, and that helping mentors then translate their advice and coaching into sponsorship — that is, the advocacy and salespersonship of a person’s virtues in order to get them access to greater opportunities — is the logical and integral next step.
When mentorship is accessible and equitable, those same elements are reflected across other parts of the workplace. And that, ultimately, should be every company’s goal: to use mentorship as a means to reach the most important end, which is creating more equity and inclusion across the business, in order to deliver inclusive output in the breadth of communities that can benefit from an organization’s work.