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Tips for Mentors
by Linda Phillips-Jones, Ph.D.

WHERE TO DRAW THE LINE

In an effort to be helpful, some mentors go too far. They offer to do things we believe are unwise.
 
Here are some examples along with what we believe are preferable steps to take.
  • Investing financially in mentee's business or life pursuits
Occasionally you may be invited by your mentee to buy something, invest in his/her business, pay his/her bills, or otherwise bring money into the relationship. Doing so in a formal mentoring partnership changes the relationship and causes a conflict of interest. In counseling this is called a "dual relationship." No longer can you be neutral and objective about the mentee's performance. He/She won't be as open with you about problems, concerns, and mistakes for fear you'll withdraw (or regret) your support. The mentee could even become inappropriately dependent upon you, something to avoid in all mentoring relationships.

Preferred response: I'm honored that you asked, AND I have to say no. I'd like to keep our relationship strictly a mentoring partnership at this time. Once our formal partnership has ended, I'd be glad to entertain a discussion about options like that. How about if we identify some other sources for you….
  • "Working" for your mentee
This is a cousin of Example 1. In this case, your mentee "hires" you (with or without pay) to do an actual work task. Examples: write his/her resume, complete a scholarship application, inventory Web-based degree programs, interview his/her fellow employees about how the mentee is performing on the job. In each of these situations, you're doing the work the mentee should be doing (or paying someone else to do).

Preferred response: I appreciate your faith in my ability to do that task. However, this is a step I'd rather not take. I prefer working behind the scenes with you and helping you do this important task yourself. I'll be very glad to give you feedback as you go along.
  • Playing personal counselor
This one can happen before you even realize it, so discuss some boundaries when you're setting up the partnership. Effective mentors don't limit their helping to work-related issues. In fact, the best mentors help mentees with their total life issues and challenges. Yet, they pay attention to "the line." They resist giving critical personal advice and counseling especially when the mentee is experiencing big psychological challenges. These can include major marital or family difficulties, drug or alcohol misuse, depression, and other potentially complex and even life-threatening situations.

Preferred response: I'm glad you mentioned ____. I care very much about you and want to support you as you deal with this. As we discussed when we set up our relationship, we may run into something I'm not an expert on. I believe this is one of those situations. How about if we talk with ______ on this and come up with a way you can get the assistance you need?

If you're in a work setting, by all means get advice from your human resources or personnel experts anytime you believe your mentee is heading into difficult areas. If you're on your own, make an anonymous call to a local or national mental health hotline or consult another expert for some guidance.
When you're starting out as a mentor, you won't always be clear about where to set your boundaries. Whenever possible, check with your program coordinator or someone else you trust to develop limits that are right for you.
 
For more ideas on being an effective mentor, see our Archive and Products.

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