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Mentoring and Diversity

We at The Mentoring Group are eager to learn more about the issues of diversity and inclusion.

We’re trying to become as sensitive as we can be about concerns, appropriate strategies, feelings, and fallacies related to persons of color; females; white males; seniors; individuals who are physically, mentally, or emotionally challenged; and others.

We’ve coined the term, “mentoring across differences,” to address relationships in which the two parties are different in key ways. Those differences not only include race, culture, and gender but such key differences as learning and communication styles, life experiences, and personal interests. What are you doing to ensure opportunities for all in your organization? Have you identified compelling principles and actions that the rest of us should know and try?

Some Best Practices

We’re impressed with the insights and suggestions of David A. Thomas in the Harvard Business Review article, “The Truth about Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters,” as well as one of his earlier articles. We believe his powerful recommendations apply not only to people of color but to all diversity populations. Here are some of his thoughts to help you (and us) become more aware as well as more proactive in “mentoring across differences.” (Parentheses indicate the article in the References that follow.)

  1. Help mentees establish many relationships with a broad range of people, especially in the early years (2001).
  2. Open the door to challenging assignments to allow mentees to gain professional competence (2001).
  3. Put them in high-trust positions, which sends a message to the rest of the organization that these people are high performers; this helps them gain confidence and establish their credibility (2001).
  4. Encourage and help mentees to find developmental relationships with persons of other races (1990). [Note: CCC/TMG adds the suggestions of expanding to persons of different backgrounds and styles.]
  5. Keep minority mentees motivated by investing in them as if they were high potentials and high performers. Help them gain the three C’s: confidence, competence, and credibility (2001). [Note: CCC/TMG prefers a rewording on this: assume they are high potentials.]
  6. Recognize that same-race relationships may provide significantly more psychosocial support than cross-race relationships (1990). [Note: CCC/TMG proposes that same-other-type-of-group relationships may have this advantage, as long as mentees aren’t automatically assigned mentors of the same group.]
  7. Protect mentees by confronting subordinates or peers who level unfair criticism, especially if it has racial undertones. Example: One mentor was told that his mentee was too laid-back, an indication of his slacking off, playing on the stereotype that blacks are lazy. The mentor directly challenged the detractors by pointing out that his protégé was the leading salesperson in the division (2001). [Note: CCC/TMG believes this applies to any undertones.]
  8. Encourage mentees to have relationships with mentors that go beyond work-related issues, broad, diverse networks that include genuine, personal long-term relationships (2001).
  9. Be aware of the inherent difficulties of mentoring across race. Significant amount of research shows that cross-race (as well as cross-gender) relationships can have difficulty forming, developing, and maturing. Thomas mentions negative stereotypes, difficulty with identification and role modeling, skepticism about intimacy, public scrutiny, peer resentment, and “protective hesitation” (fear of misunderstandings, confrontations, and disagreements) (2001).
  10. In meetings, openly endorse their good ideas, which signals to others that they, too, should value the mentee's ideas. These actions will both curb mentee's fear of failure and encourage them to take risks and speak about difficulties (2001).
  11. If you recognize your limits as a role model, help mentees identify other appropriate role models (2001).
  12. Offer open-ended advice, using qualifying comments (“This might not work for you, but from my experience. . . .”) and invite discussion of the advice rather than assume it will be taken (2001).
  13. Recognize that when complexities of cross-race relationships are handled well, they can strengthen a relationship. If mentees can handle this, they will likely have a sturdy foundation to handle other problems (2001).
  14. Help mentees manage their networks, which must be strong enough to withstand the loss of you. Networks should be heterogeneous along three dimensions: a) functional diversity, b) position and location variety; c) demographic variety (2001).


Thomas, David A. (1990) The Impact of Race on Managers’ Experiences of Developmental Relationships: An Intra-Organizational Study. Journal of Organizational Behavior; 11(6), 479-492.

Thomas, David A. (2001) The Truth about Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters. Harvard Business Review, April 2001, 99-107.

Mentoring and Diversity
by Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones

13560 Mesa Drive, Grass Valley, CA 95949, USA
Phone: 530.268.1146 Fax: 530.268.3636 e-mail:
All materials copyright © 2003 - 1998 CCC/THE MENTORING GROUP