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Who benefits most from company mentorship programs?

A gallery assistant removes a ladder in front of 'Wolken (Fenster) (Clouds (window))' by German painter Gerhard Richter during a media preview for 'Rembrandt to Richter' at Sotheby's auction house in London
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Helping mentees scale new heights.
  • Jackie Bischof
By Jackie Bischof

Talent Lab editor

Published Last updated on

Quartz’s cross-departmental mentorship program has a relatively high participation rate. Yet each year there is a last-minute scramble to encourage employees who could benefit from the program to sign up. As one of the organizers, I’ll admit that I’ve occasionally thought: What if people didn’t get to choose whether or not to participate in mentorship?

Our company won’t have a mandatory mentorship program anytime soon—we want to empower our employees to decide to volunteer, and it’s our responsibility to create an environment where they feel supported in doing so. But the question of who might benefit from a required mentorship program is an interesting one, and was recently explored in a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Researchers designed a four-week mentorship program and divided new hires at a US sales call center into two groups: those who were automatically enrolled and randomly paired with mentors for the program; and those who were encouraged, but not required, to sign up. The researchers then measured how well the agents were doing in their jobs six months later by looking at their sales volumes.

The study found that mentoring had a negligible effect on people who were given a choice whether to participate in the program—that is, those who did sign up were doing as well (or as poorly) as people who decided not to. But the program did have an outsize effect on people who were automatically enrolled. Compared to a control group who did not receive mentorship, the mentored sales agents outperformed the other group by over 18% in their first six months.

The researchers concluded that “formal mentorship program treatment effects are largest for workers who would otherwise opt out of these programs.” Or, as one of the researchers on the paper, Christopher Stanton, puts it, the company’s weakest performers benefitted the most from being mentored.

Measuring the success of mentorship programs

Stanton is an associate professor in entrepreneurial management at Harvard, and has helped research the pretty significant effect that people can have on the productivity of their colleagues. With this paper, researchers wanted to look at what would happen if that effect was systematized.

The challenge with voluntary mentorship programs is that they tend to attract people who are already primed to benefit from them—eager to learn, happy to collaborate, keen to help. A targeted program has the potential to help people who don’t necessarily know how to tap into co-worker networks or workplace programs, or feel intimidated by them.

Stanton’s paper didn’t explore the demographics or characteristics that might make a person less likely to engage in formalized mentorship, and he said this remains an open question worthy of more research. Knowing this might help companies figure out who would best benefit from a targeted program.

The study has caveats worth noting: The fact that it was a short program offered to new hires at a sales call center and focused on skills development means the findings aren’t necessarily widely applicable. And the study only measured employees’ performance and retention up to six months, without looking at other measures, like job satisfaction, that could effect longer-term retention.

Stanton says the program did temporarily increase retention rates for all participants, and points to a 2018 study at urban public schools in New Jersey, which showed that mandatory programs offered to new teachers had a positive effect on retention. At least one company has also experimented with this model: In 2009, Ernst & Young required employees to take part in an internal development program that included mentorship, with the aim of keeping employees engaged during the global recession. (EY did not respond to a request for comment as to whether the program was ongoing.)

There are also broad takeaways for managers from this study, Stanton says. One is that when a company wants to evaluate the success of a program such as a skills development course or mentorship offering, it’s helpful to think about who opts in—that is, the fact that the company’s strongest performers are most likely to take advantage. “If you don’t account for the fact that they were more productive or would have been more productive even in the absence of the program, you probably really overstate the effect of programs that aren’t more targeted,” he says.

The study also illustrates the degree to which struggling employees can be helped with resources like coaching and mentoring if strongly encouraged to participate.

“Lower performers tend not to take advantage of programs at work that would help train them up, or help put their careers on track,” Stanton says. “I think managers need to be intentional about that.”

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