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When mentoring malfunctions

Mentoring's one of the standard activities that you'll come across in the information profession. We're very caring and sharing like that, wanting to support people in their professional development.

As you start your career as an information professional, you'll regularly hear the advice: get a mentor.
Or, as you advance in your career and seem to be doing well, you'll be advised to become a mentor.

This is fine: yes, both being mentored and being a mentor can be excellent relationships, and very useful for both parties involved. But.....mentoring relationships are like any other relationships: they can go wrong. And they can go wrong in a whole lot of ways.

I've heard of mentors and mentees whose relationships have malfunctioned due to mismanagement, wrong focus, disinterest, and inappropriate behaviour. Like any other relationship, bullying and abuse can happen in mentor/mentee arrangements, but it can be very difficult for the participants to escape the relationship.

However, this seems to be the side of mentoring that isn't ever discussed. There's plenty of guidance and information out there to help you with finding a mentor, or to help you to get involved as a mentor, and to tell you how positive a relationship it will be. But there seems to be no guidance for when either the mentor or mentee want to go their separate ways. There's also no discussion (other than in whispered asides, or confidential chats with trusted contacts) that identifies those participants in mentoring relationships who should really not be allowed to participate in any others due to their actions. This can leave those who're stuck in a bad relationship feeling that it's their fault that it's not working, as it seems to work well for everyone else.

So, what are your options if, as a mentor or mentee, your relationship isn't working? can confront the person causing the problems, and get the issues out into the open. That might work, but it might also blow up in your face, and cause all sorts of further problems. So it doesn't seem that direct confrontation is the best way to manage failing relationships. Additionally, if you're a mentee you're often in a position of vulnerability - your mentor is likely to be further advanced in their career, has a lot of professional contacts, and will be well respected. You might feel you won't be believed if you tell anyone about the issues. As a mentor, you may feel that others will think you've let down your mentee if the relationship isn't working, and it could impact on your professional standing.

I don't have a solution for this problem, but please feel free to leave comments and make suggestions of your own. Have you been in a bad mentoring relationship yourself? What would you suggest could help when problems arise? Do we need more involvement from professional mentoring scheme arrangers, maybe by creating compulsory review points during mentoring arrangements, when participants can step back from/leave the relationship, with no explanation needed? Should there be some professional penalty for abuse of mentoring schemes? Should there be a whistleblowing option for these schemes, so vulnerable participants can flag up the actions of the other participant, and trigger a review from the scheme arranger?

How can participants in mentoring relationships get out of them when they go wrong, and how can people who are acting inappropriately in a variety of ways in mentoring relationships be prevented from continuing to do damage?


Emma Davidson said…
I realise this is of no help to people currently in a malfunctioning mentoring situation, but one of the first pieces of advice I was given about being a mentee is that when you first meet a prospective mentor you should always set an end date. Think of it as defined contract (which can be renewed if necessary) rather than a long-term commitment. Also, if things are going wrong, either party is totally entitled to say "thanks so much for everything, but I think we've both got as much out of this mentoring arrangement as we can". No grief, no recriminations, just a graceful exit.

However, if you do have a problem with a particular individual which is genuinely about their approach and not just a personality clash, and they're signed up as a mentor with a recognised scheme (e.g. CILIP Chartership), you should seriously consider making a discreet report to whoever runs the scheme to flag up whatever aspect of their behaviour is inappropriate. Otherwise the situation will keep happening, and that's a bad thing for everyone.

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