How reverse mentoring is helping to improve diversity in businesses

How do you break down cultural barriers when your employees don’t know anyone different from them? Reverse mentoring could be the answer.

In this article you will learn:

  • What reverse mentoring is
  • How reverse mentoring could benefit your business
  • What you should know before implementing reverse mentoring

What is reverse mentoring?

It’s all about taking the concept of mentoring – wise older person takes raw younger person under their wing – and turning it on its head. Reverse mentoring acknowledges that the more senior person is the one who is looking for a fresh outlook.

Some companies have done reverse mentoring around age, with millennials helping older colleagues to understand issues around new tech and ways of thinking. Others have focused on bringing together white people with colleagues from BAME backgrounds, straight people with colleagues who are LGBTQ, or non-disabled colleagues with disabled colleagues.

Why do we need it?

It’s hard to understand the challenges people face when you don’t know them. “When we did unconscious bias training with senior leaders, one thing that came out was that in most cases they did not have diversity in their own biographies,” says Richard Chapman-Harris, diversity and inclusion manager at engineering firm Mott MacDonald.

The firm’s reverse mentoring scheme pairs senior colleagues with colleagues on lower grades who are from BAME backgrounds, are LGBTQ, or are disabled. “In most cases, they could think of less than a handful of diverse role models. And they found it difficult to simply engage with someone and add them to their personal network just because they were different from them.”

What does it achieve?

Olu Odubajo, customer and digital analyst at KPMG, mentored managing partner Philip Davidson through the company’s reverse mentoring scheme, which connected black heritage colleagues with senior partners. He believes the programme can create real cultural transformation at the company.

“Through open discussions with Philip, I was able to find a lot of common ground, as well as highlight the differences in our journeys, and this has given me the confidence to believe I can rise to his level in the organisation if I trust my abilities,” he says. “Mentors should not underestimate their influence, they have unique experiences which can provide valuable insight and encourage others to take action to break down barriers and promote inclusivity.”

What are the pitfalls?

Any mentoring relationship is a complex one, says Chapman-Harris, but there are particular challenges around reverse mentoring: people might feel patronised, or that they are now carrying an emotional load around their mentee’s opinions – not to mention worries around the kind of language to use, or how to react when faced with a difference of opinion. Mott MacDonalds reverse mentoring scheme was voluntary, asking for applicants rather than forcing people into the scheme, and both mentor and mentee went through training. “We made it very clear that it wasn’t a remedial intervention – this is a positive action scheme. It’s not the job of a reverse mentor to de-bias a senior leader,” says Chapman-Harris.

What should I think about before going ahead with reverse mentoring?

Start small, Chapman-Harris advises, and see how things go. He suggests beginning with issues that you feel your company can address, and then evolving as you go. “Conversations around ethnicity, diversity and LGBTQ issues require a level of expertise in equality, diversity and inclusion,” he points out. “So if you’re not sure that you’re at that stage yet, you could start with, perhaps, reverse mentoring around age and tech, then around gender, then moving to protected characteristics. It needs to be handled and managed in a sensitive way and not every organisation is on the maturity journey for these schemes.”

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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