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date: 07 December 2021

Mentoring Research Through the Years: A Brief Reviewfree

Mentoring Research Through the Years: A Brief Reviewfree

  • S. Gayle BaughS. Gayle BaughDepartment of Management & MIS, University of West Florida


Mentoring relationships involve a more experienced individual who provides support for the career and personal development of a less experienced coworker. The focus of mentoring research has evolved over the years. Early on, investigators were interested in learning about the outcomes of the mentoring relationship for the protégé, who is the primary beneficiary of the relationship. Risks for the protégé were not acknowledged in the initial research on mentoring relationships. There were questions about how individuals identify appropriate mentoring partners and about the course of the relationship. Attention then turned to the motivations and potential benefits to the mentor, the other party in the relationship. However, scholars recognized that while there were positive outcomes from serving as a mentor, there were also costs associated with the role. Given that so much empirical focus was on the benefits of voluntary developmental relationships, scholars became interested in more formal, organizationally controlled approaches to encouraging mentoring relationships. However, mentoring relationships are not uniformly positive and beneficial to the parties so engaged. Just as would be the case in any relationship, there is a “dark side” to mentoring relationships that has emerged as the focus of empirical attention. Finally, the influence of diversity of the mentoring participants has been explored. That exploration has largely focused on gender issues, with limited attention devoted toward ethnicity. With the advent of greater diversity in the workforce in the United States and elsewhere, diversity represents an area ripe for investigation. Overall, despite the wealth of research on mentoring relationships, there are questions that remain under-researched or unexplored in each of the areas of research.


  • Human Resource Management
  • Organizational Behavior

Many individuals in both business and academic settings have experienced a developmental relationship like mentoring during their career. Perhaps this personal experience in part explains the sustained interest in mentoring on the part of both scholars and practitioners. Scholarly interest in mentoring is generally traced back to Kram’s publication in 1985 of the groundbreaking book Mentoring at Work. Practitioner interest in mentoring likely predates that publication.

A mentoring relationship involves a one-on-one exchange between a more experienced individual, the mentor, and a less experienced colleague, the protégé (Eby et al., 2007; Haggard et al., 2011). The mentor takes an interest in the career and personal development of the protégé. Mentoring relationships generally unfold over a period of years (Kram, 1983, 1985), so they can be distinguished from networking relationships that may deliver assistance on a more limited basis. The mentor typically occupies a more senior position in the organizational hierarchy than the protégé. While it is possible for a supervisor to serve as a mentor, mentors typically hold a position two or three hierarchical levels above the protégé (Haggard et al., 2011). Further, the mentor will usually work within the same occupational field and in the same organization, although individuals may find mentors outside of their occupation or employing organization.

While the traditional definition of a mentoring relationship encompasses a dyadic, mutually satisfying relationship between two individuals, with the mentor more highly placed in the organizational or occupational hierarchy than the protégé, other developmental relationships are often considered as mentoring. For example, peer relationships may be considered developmental and even as mentoring relationships if one peer is more advanced with respect to experience and understanding in the occupational field (Kram, 1985; Kram & Isabella, 1985; McManus & Russell, 2007). Some mentoring relationships even reverse the hierarchical order of the mentor and protégé, with the hierarchical superior as the protégé. These “reverse mentoring” relationships typically focus on helping the (hierarchically superior) protégé to adapt to new technology or to learn how to work with diverse subordinates through the interaction with the mentor (Gadomska-Lila, 2020; Kaše et al., 2019; Murphy, 2012; Zielinski, 2000). While these atypical mentoring relationships will not be explicitly considered herein, it is interesting to note that the various types of mentoring or developmental relationships have not been directly compared. Research that examines different types of relationships simultaneously to determine if the mentoring functions and relationship development processes are similar or different would be revealing. Further, it is possible that these alternative mentoring relationships involve different mentoring functions such that new scale development will be necessary (Chen, 2014).

The traditionally defined mentoring relationship is important to the protégé’s career because it facilitates and perhaps accelerates individual development. While the mentoring relationship is focused on the protégé and the protégé is the primary beneficiary of the relationship, there are benefits that accrue to the mentor as well (Ghosh & Reio, 2013). Thus, mentoring is a long-term relationship involving reciprocity that benefits both parties. The history of scholarship on mentoring reveals that research has developed from relatively straightforward questions about the outcomes of the relationship for the protégé to more complex questions that acknowledge the characteristics of the individuals and the setting in which they work.

Benefits of Mentoring to the Protégé

The initial focus of research was quite naturally on the benefits of the relationship to the protégé. The protégé was the intended beneficiary of the relationship (Haggard et al., 2011), thus it was important to establish that the protégé obtained positive outcomes from mentoring interactions. Initial research examined the influence of the simple presence of a mentor in the protégé’s work life but attention quickly shifted to the mentor’s activities on behalf of the protégé.

Comparisons of Mentored and Non-Mentored Individuals

Initial research on mentoring attempted to assess differences in career outcomes between protégés and non-mentored individuals that could be attributable to mentoring. Outcomes included in this line of research comprised both objective and subjective career outcomes as well as individual attitudes. Compensation, promotions, and speed of promotions were among the objective career outcomes investigated, with research generally indicating that protégé outcomes were superior to those of non-protégés (Allen et al., 2004; Dreher & Ash, 1990; Fagenson, 1989; Kammeyer-Mueller & Judge, 2008; Scandura, 1992). Mentoring relationships, then, are associated with career outcomes that may be visible to others, thus enhancing the value of mentoring in the eyes of employees.

Subjective career outcomes, too, have been associated with protégé status as have responses to the organizational setting. Subjective career outcomes include career commitment, career satisfaction, career self-efficacy, expectations for advancement, and experienced feelings of career success (Allen et al., 2004; Baugh et al., 1996; Kammeyer-Mueller & Judge, 2008; Noe et al., 2002; Wanberg et al., 2003). Attitudinal responses to the organizational setting often included in research studies are job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and role attitudes (role conflict and role ambiguity) (Allen et al., 2004; Fagenson, 1989; Koberg et al., 1994; Payne & Huffman, 2005). Compared to individuals who lack a mentoring relationship, protégés report a more positive subjective experience of the career and the organizational setting, although the relationships are relatively weak when controlling for personal and career variables (Kammeyer-Mueller & Judge, 2008).

There are at least two potential explanations for protégés to have more enjoyable work experiences than non-protégés. Protégés’ positive subjective responses may be related to the better objective career outcomes, but they may also be associated with the mentoring experience itself. Research has yet to disentangle these two effects. However, subjective outcomes are more frequently studied and usually demonstrate stronger associations with mentoring, which suggests that the mentoring relationship may facilitate positive career responses. While finding an effect for having a mentor on objective outcomes is important, it is also useful to know if the relationship has an effect on subjective responses beyond the influence of objective career outcomes. As organizations increasingly recognize their ethical responsibility for offering an affirming work environment, determining the origin of the subjective outcomes may become an important focus of mentoring research.

Effects of Mentoring Functions

Kram’s original qualitative research (1985) identified two dimensions of mentoring functions provided by the mentor that formed the basis for the benefits of the mentoring relationship to the protégé. These two overall dimensions of behaviors were career (or instrumental) functions and psychosocial functions. The career functions are directed toward helping the protégé to develop skills and abilities needed in the career and facilitating the protégé’s upward advancement in the organization or occupation. The career functions of mentoring include coaching, sponsorship for advancement, exposure and visibility to influential individuals, protection from missteps and career detractors, and challenging assignments to facilitate development of skills and abilities.

In addition to career functions, mentors also offer psychosocial functions. Psychosocial functions focus on professional and personal growth and provide the basis for the development of professional identity, self-worth, and self-efficacy. Psychosocial functions identified include providing acceptance and confirmation, counseling, and friendship (Kram, 1985). In addition, role modeling is sometimes included as a psychosocial function and is sometimes investigated as a distinct mentoring function (Dickson et al., 2014; Scandura, 1992).

The ambiguity with respect to the empirical treatment of role modeling as included in or separable from psychosocial functions may have its basis in the fact that it is the only function that cannot be provided by the mentor. The protégé must determine if the mentor’s behavior is an acceptable prototype on which to model his or her own job and career activities. In the case of role modeling, the protégé is the decision maker with respect to whether the function is fulfilled, whereas for career or psychosocial functions, the mentor is the decision maker. While the mentor explicitly offers career and psychosocial functions, the mentor may or may not be aware of his or her status as a role model. Further, in a meta-analysis of mentoring functions that included role modeling as a separate function, role modeling showed the strongest relationship with protégé-reported outcomes (Dickson et al., 2014). There are interesting questions that arise from the differential status of role modeling relative to the career and psychosocial functions of mentoring that merit scholarly attention. For example, is it possible that role modeling is a precursor to rather than an outcome of the mentoring relationship? Would proactive protégés seek out as a mentor an individual whom they have already identified as a role model? However, for purposes of the present discussion, role modeling is generally included as one of the psychosocial functions.

In order to be considered a mentor, an individual must provide both career and psychosocial functions (and may possibly provide role modeling for the protégé as well). If an individual provides only career functions, then that person is a career counselor. If one offers only psychosocial functions, then one is a friend. If the only function fulfilled is role modeling, then one is an exemplar. Although some research has examined the combined effect of the mentoring functions, most research offers evidence with respect to both career and psychosocial functions.

It is not surprising that career mentoring is related to both objective and subjective career outcomes. Protégés experiencing high levels of career mentoring can look forward to higher compensation than non-mentored workers as well as more frequent and faster promotions (Allen et al., 2004; Kammeyer-Mueller & Judge, 2008; Whitely & Coetsier, 1999; Whitely et al., 1991). While protégés experience a better objective work situation than individuals who are not mentored, protégés receiving higher levels of career functions have a better situation than those receiving less in terms of these functions. The same situation holds true for subjective career outcomes and for attitudinal responses to the work setting—higher levels of career mentoring are associated with more positive subjective career outcomes and assessments of the work situation (Aryee & Chay, 1994; Dickson et al., 2014; Kammeyer-Mueller & Judge, 2008; Thurston et al., 2012; van Emmerik, 2004).

The findings are quite similar for psychosocial mentoring. Psychosocial mentoring is less strongly correlated to objective career outcomes than career mentoring, but it is nonetheless associated (Allen et al., 2004). Surprisingly, Kammeyer-Mueller and Judge (2008) found psychosocial mentoring to be negatively related to promotions and unrelated to salary. The strength of the relationships between subjective career outcomes and psychosocial mentoring is slightly lower than that between these outcomes and career mentoring (Allen et al., 2004; Dickson et al., 2014). In addition, psychosocial mentoring is more likely than career mentoring to be associated with work-family balance and positive self-assessments (Koberg et al., 1998; Nielson et al., 2001; Waters et al., 2002). Psychosocial mentoring is related to a range of outcomes that reflect the protégé’s adjustment to the work setting (Sekiguchi et al., 2019), which is consistent with the definition of psychosocial functions.

Based on meta-analytic results (Eby et al., 2013), the two mentoring functions are both related to the protégé’s evaluation of the quality of the mentoring relationship. This finding, coupled with results reported by Ragins and colleagues (2000) suggesting that the quality of the mentoring relationship was related to protégé outcomes, indicates that the quality of the relationship is also an important variable in mentoring. That is, higher-quality relationships—those more strongly characterized by trust and mutuality—mean greater provision of mentoring functions, which are then associated with better outcomes for the protégé. While protégé status confers advantages relative to non-protégés, as noted earlier, it appears that “some protégés are more equal than others.”

Benefits of Mentoring to the Mentor

The primary purpose of a mentoring relationship is to facilitate the protégé’s personal and professional development. As a result, the focus of early research was on the benefits to be obtained by the protégé through participation in the mentoring relationship. However, skilled and motivated mentors are essential to the developmental process, so it is important to determine what incentives exist for the mentors. The norm of reciprocity suggests that the mentor must gain some benefits or satisfaction from the interactions in order to sustain the relationship. After initially establishing the value of the mentoring relationship to the protégé, empirical attention turned to the question of what motivates the mentor to engage in a mentoring relationship.

Identification of Possible Benefits to Mentors

There has been a great deal of speculation as to the benefits that might accrue to the mentor as a result of engaging in the mentoring relationship. Facilitating the growth and development of a less experienced coworker may be a rewarding experience in and of itself (Ragins & Scandura, 1999). However, in addition to altruistic reasons, the workplace context suggests that mentoring may be associated with some valuable outcomes to enrich the mentor’s career (Scandura et al., 1996). The mentor is most likely to benefit when the protégé performs well within the organizational setting.

Through the mechanism of mentoring, the mentor may develop a set of loyal supporters within the work setting. Over time, the mentor’s bond with a protégé may mature into something more like a mutually supportive peer relationship (Kram, 1983). If the mentor continues to develop relationships with a number of protégés over time, the mentor will have a network of loyal and supportive colleagues to call upon when needed (Ragins & Scandura, 1994). Given the evidence that protégés tend to report lower turnover intentions (Allen et al., 2004; Scandura & Viator, 1994) and may actually be less likely to leave the organization than non-mentored individuals (Payne & Huffman, 2005), this expanding network will include individuals in various positions throughout the organization who can assist the (former) mentor when needed.

The mentor may also earn the respect of colleagues as being good at assessing the potential of less experienced individuals. If the mentor is good at assessing raw talent and invests in the growth and maturation of talented individuals, the mentor will benefit from an enhanced reputation within the organization (Levinson et al., 1978; Ragins & Scandura, 1994). In addition to gaining esteem in the eyes of coworkers, the mentor will become more desirable as an exchange partner. Thus, a virtuous cycle is created such that success in mentoring results in additional mentoring opportunities and further enhances the mentor’s organizational standing.

Working closely with less experienced and often younger colleagues may improve the mentor’s job performance, particularly in the area of technology (Gadomska-Lila, 2020; Kaše et al., 2019; Murphy, 2012). The relationship can be symbiotic, such that the mentor teaches the protégé about the organizational system and the protégé helps the mentor to recognize current perspectives on and newer technological approaches to organizational problems. In essence, the mentoring relationship may serve as a type of “continuing education” for the mentor.

Mentoring may serve to refresh and rejuvenate the mentor’s career. An individual who feels plateaued (vertically, horizontally, or both) may find a new excitement through mentoring (Corzine et al., 1994; Wang et al., 2014). The mentor may have a continuing impact on the organization through leveraging his or her accumulated wisdom and skill in the context of a developmental relationship (Levinson et al., 1978).

Empirical Research on Benefits to Mentors

Surprisingly, little research has explored the outcomes that have been identified as potential benefits to mentors. The only empirical study that explored the relationships between mentoring activities and the suggested outcomes found limited results (Grima et al., 2014). This study utilized the benefits of mentoring scale presented by Ragins and Scandura (1999) but, unfortunately, included a modified scale to assess mentoring functions. The results of this research indicated that provision of career functions was associated with finding mentoring to be a rewarding experience, recognition from others, and career rejuvenation. Role modeling on the part of the mentor was related to finding mentoring to be a rewarding experience and career rejuvenation, but psychosocial functions were not represented in this study. In addition to the omission of the psychosocial functions, the study failed to include the mentor benefit of a loyal base of support. These results are suggestive with respect to the conceptual identification of mentoring outcomes but have not yet been replicated or expanded.

A second study (Eby et al., 2006) investigated the long-term effects of mentoring on the mentor’s work experiences. In this study, the authors reported that four mentoring outcomes (rewarding experience, recognition by others, improved job performance, and loyal base of support) were related to several work attitudes and to intention to serve as a mentor in the future. There was no relationship to career success.

Despite the conceptual delineation of outcomes that are logically connected to the experience of mentoring, empirical research has primarily been directed toward the same career and attitudinal outcomes as those associated with experience as a protégé. It may be that scholars want to make direct comparisons of the protégé and mentor experiences and as a result have chosen to investigate among mentors the same set of outcomes that were identified for protégés. It is also possible that proposed outcomes (except for job performance) are difficult to operationalize in any manner other than a self-report and, as a result, are less appealing for empirical investigation.

There have been a few studies examining the influence of mentoring on objective career outcomes. Bozionelos and colleagues (Bozionelos, 2004; Bozionelos et al., 2011) found that mentoring provided over the course of the mentor’s tenure in the organization was positively associated with number of promotions and salary level. Echoing these results, Allen et al. (2006) found that mentors as compared to non-mentors reported a higher salary and more promotions. It is notable that Bozionelos and colleagues (2011) controlled for the amount of mentoring received from his or her own mentor during the same period of time and Allen and colleagues (2006) controlled for human capital variables in their empirical work.

There is some evidence with respect to the effect of mentor status or provision of mentoring functions on subjective career success and attitudinal outcomes. Studies have found serving as a mentor to be positively related to subjective (self-reported) career success (Allen et al., 2006; Bozionelos, 2004; Bozionelos et al., 2011; Ghosh & Reio, 2013). Protégé-rated career and psychosocial functions have been positively associated with mentor organizational commitment (Chun et al., 2012; Ghosh & Reio, 2013) as well as mentor job satisfaction (Ghosh & Reio, 2013). Career-related mentoring provided has been found to be predictive of supervisory-rated job performance for the mentor (Gentry et al., 2008). These limited findings suggest that mentors as well as protégés often enjoy improved work experience. However, there has been much less attention directed toward outcomes for mentors than for protégés.

An intriguing study sought to identify the mentor’s motives for engaging in the mentoring relationship (Allen, 2003). The three motives identified were other-focused (to improve conditions for others, especially the protégé), self-enhancement (to put oneself in a good light), and self-gratification (to meet intrinsic needs). Motivations were related to mentoring functions reported in the predicted manner. Self-enhancement was related to career mentoring, self-gratification to psychosocial mentoring, and other-focused motives were related to both mentoring functions. It is disappointing that this research on mentor motives has never been extended to the investigation of outcomes of the relationship for the mentor. It seems reasonable that the differing motivations should lead to differing outcomes, so this area represents a fertile area for future research.

As noted earlier, the benefits that accrue to the mentor are, for the most part, predicated on a high-performing protégé. The mentor cannot expect to reap the benefits of improved job performance, recognition from coworkers, or satisfaction from having a positive impact on the protégé’s career unless the protégé can perform well in the organizational setting. The mentor’s choice regarding whom to mentor is an important one.

Protégé Selection

If an organization sets up a mentoring program, there are procedures to follow in order to recruit mentors and protégés and then to make decisions about how to match participants. When there is no formal program, potential participants are left to their own devices to determine how to identify a desired dyadic partner (Ivey & Dupré, 2020). A mentoring relationship can be initiated by either the potential mentor or the potential protégé. Due to the hierarchical difference between protégé and mentor, there are likely to be more potential protégés than there are potential mentors. In addition, the potential mentor will have greater status and more power than the potential protégé, and thus can be expected to be the decision maker (particularly exercising veto power”) regarding the match. While the selection process that mentors use is both important and intriguing, the process remains, for the most part, unexplored.

If similarity leads to attraction, a potential mentor may seek a protégé who is like himself or herself. Demographic similarity is relatively easy for the mentor to assess and may form the basis for considering a potential protégé. Mentors do not indicate that they actively seek out a protégé who is demographically similar (Allen, 2004; Allen et al., 2000). However, demographic similarity may form the basis for a feeling of interpersonal comfort (Allen et al., 2005). Allen and colleagues (1997) explored mentor choice of protégé using qualitative techniques. They found that mentors selected protégés who reminded them of themselves, thus offering some support for the hypothesis that similarity will influence choice of protégé.

Protégé career success is the strongest indicator of success as a mentor. Thus, mentors must try to select protégés whom they consider likely to develop into competent performers. The research is fairly consistent in supporting this position. Mentors select protégés based on perceived competence (Allen et al., 2000) rather than need for assistance. On a more optimistic note, Allen (2004) found that although mentors preferred protégés high in ability, willingness to learn could compensate for lower ability. That is, mentors were willing to select a protégé who exhibited eagerness to learn regardless of level of ability. Mentor motivation made a difference, however, in that self-enhancement as a motivator led mentors to consider ability more strongly, whereas intrinsic motivation led mentors to select protégés high in willingness to learn (Allen, 2004).

Protégé personality also affects the probability of selection as a recipient of mentoring. Individuals with characteristics (internal locus of control, high self-monitoring, and high emotional stability) that led them to be more proactive in initiating relationships received more mentoring support (Turban & Lee, 2007). Protégés high in self-esteem, need for achievement, and need for dominance reported a greater number of previous mentors than those lower in these characteristics (Fagenson-Eland & Baugh, 2001). These results are troubling, in that the qualities that predict popularity as a protégé are also characteristics indicative of career success. Similarly, perceived competence, high ability, and even willingness to learn are likely predictors of career success. These findings lead one to question whether mentoring is truly serving the right individuals (Allen, 2004; Turban & Lee, 2007; Underhill, 2006). Is mentoring more available to individuals who are likely to be successful in any case to the exclusion of individuals who might truly benefit from a developmental relationship such as mentoring (Ivey & Dupré, 2020)? Perhaps in response to this as yet unanswered question, many organizations have developed formal mentoring programs in order to make mentoring more widely available.

Formal Mentoring Programs

Organizations have been found to be beneficiaries of mentoring along with mentors and protégés (Alleman & Clarke, 2000; Laiho & Brandt, 2012; Thurston et al., 2012; Underhill, 2006). However, when left to their own devices, individuals perceive barriers to finding a mentor (Blickle et al., 2010; Ragins & Cotton, 1991). Consequently, there is an incentive for organizations to develop mentoring programs and to make them available to interested parties.

Formal mentoring programs are organizationally initiated to facilitate and support developmental relationships (Baugh & Fagenson-Eland, 2007). Such programs include a process for assigning individuals to dyadic relationships, although the participants are usually offered some degree of choice with respect to the mentor-protégé match. In addition, there is a predetermined time span for the relationships, usually not more than one year, although participants are free to continue the relationship beyond the period of the formal program. There are several reasons that organizations engage in the facilitation of mentoring programs.

One goal of formal mentoring programs is the socialization of relatively new employees. Mentoring new employees will help them to understand the organizational system better, including the organization’s mission, values, formal structure, and informal systems. This enhanced understanding should improve job performance and retention of new employees (Allen et al., 2017; Singh et al., 2002). However, the benefits of mentoring are not confined to socializing new employees.

Organizations also expect to benefit from the improved performance, attitudes, and retention of protégés who are already experienced employees (Allen et al., 2004; Dougherty & Dreher, 2007; Son & Kim, 2016). Mentoring facilitates organizational learning, which enhances the value of the dyadic partners to the organization (Lankau & Scandura, 2002). Mentoring is especially effective with respect to the transfer of learning to the job situation, given that protégés may request support for specific challenges they face on the job (Benabou & Benabou, 2000; Lankau & Scandura, 2007).

Early identification of managerial talent and leadership development are goals often articulated for formal mentoring programs (Groves, 2007; Singh et al., 2002). If highly talented individuals can be “fast-tracked” into the management hierarchy, the organization can better plan how to utilize their talent. However, this approach raises concerns about favoritism and equity. Thus, it is wise to be cautious in the selection of protégés for such programs (DiTomaso, 2015; McDonald & Hite, 2005).

Organizations may also attempt to use mentoring in order to increase diversity within the managerial ranks (Barbarian, 2002; Gibb, 1999). Mentoring programs directed toward women and under-represented groups provide access to mentors for these individuals, facilitate upward mobility, and educate mentors with respect to the challenges faced by these individuals (Ragins, 2002; Zielinski, 2000). However, such targeted programs may also be subject to charges of favoritism or discrimination. Once again, organizations should “handle with care.”

Like the situation with the benefits of mentoring for mentors, the outcomes identified for organizations have not received much empirical attention. For the most part, research has compared the effectiveness of formal mentoring programs with those of informal mentoring relationships. Comparisons have been reported for both mentoring functions and mentoring outcomes. The long-term effectiveness of such programs has yet to be examined.

The evidence with respect to the mentoring functions generally suggests that protégés in informal relationships receive higher levels of career support. Results from several studies indicate that protégés in informal relations receive more career functions than those in formal relationships (Allen et al., 2005; Ragins & Cotton, 1999; Scandura & Williams, 2001). Other studies report no differences (Fagenson et al., 1997; Sosik et al., 2005). Similar findings exist with respect to psychosocial mentoring, with some studies (Fagenson et al., 1997; Ragins & Cotton, 1999; Scandura & Williams, 2001; Sosik et al., 2005) reporting greater benefit to informal protégés and others (Allen et al., 2005; Chao et al., 1992) finding no difference. None of the studies indicated that formal protégés received more mentoring functions than informal protégés.

Organizations that invest in formal programs are also interested in the benefits obtained by participants. It is unfortunate that little research has directly compared outcomes for formal and informal protégés. There were no differences in promotions for formal and informal protégés, but formal protégés received a lower salary than informal protégés (Chao et al., 1992; Ragins & Cotton, 1999). Self-rated job performance was also higher among informal protégés than formal protégés, but no difference was found for turnover intentions (Viator, 2001a). Compared to non-mentored individuals, formal protégés experienced greater job satisfaction (Seibert, 1999). While not a direct comparison, meta-analytic results indicated that informal protégés experienced better job outcomes than non-mentored individuals, but no difference was found for formal protégés and non-mentored individuals (Underhill, 2006). Ragins and colleagues (Ragins et al., 2000) suggested that the relevant difference is not whether the relationship was developed through a formal program but instead the quality of the relationship. Based on the evidence that formal protégés benefit less than informal protégés, organizations have focused attention on improving formal mentoring programs in order to enhance benefits to formal protégés.

The first concern in developing a formal mentoring program is to specify the goals of the program. If goals are not clearly articulated, it is difficult for participants to ascertain how they should enact their role. In addition, the goals of the program may affect the selection of participants. Clearly, mentors should be selected based on their skill in developing others, perhaps as identified through the mechanism of informal relationships. However, criteria for the selection of potential protégés will vary depending on whether the goal of the program is to develop individuals in need of assistance, socialize new employees, identify talent early in a career, or increase diversity. Once the selection has been completed, the dyadic partners must be matched.

Matching of partners can present difficulties. In order to make formally initiated relationships as much like informal relationships as possible, it is important for participants to have a voice in the selection (Allen et al., 2006). One alternative is to arrange a series of informal events so that the participants can learn about one another. Subsequently, both mentors and protégés identify a few desired partners, with confidentiality surrounding the nomination process. There may be additional criteria for actual matching. Based on a meta-analysis, Eby and colleagues (2013) found that similarity with respect to personality and values is important to develop good relationships. Based on the “big five” personality model, Menges (2016) identified matching on openness to experience and conscientiousness as specific personality dimensions that facilitated program outcomes. If there is anyone for whom matching by nomination or personality is not possible, the program director can either intervene or ask the participant to delay entry into the program until another cohort is developed. Finally, it is usually suggested that individuals have the option of “escaping” a poor match without negative repercussions. Unfortunately, that suggestion is rarely accompanied by any indication of how best to follow that advice (Baugh & Fagenson-Eland, 2007).

While there is little consistency with regard to the length of programs (Douglas & MaCauley, 1999), frequency of interaction is uniformly related to satisfaction with mentoring (Eby et al., 2013; Noe et al., 2002). Setting guidelines with respect to frequency of interaction generally leads to greater satisfaction with the formal mentoring program (Allen et al., 2006; Pittenger & Heimann, 2000; Ragins et al., 2000).

The limited information available with respect to the effectiveness of formal programs, especially as compared to informal mentoring, is concerning. However, there is a larger problem with the measurement of mentoring functions within formal and informal relationships. The equivalence of the commonly used measures of mentoring functions has not been established between formal programs and informal mentoring. It is not uncommon for research to combine responses of formally and informally mentored protégés without any certainty that the scales are invariant (Hu, 2008; Hu et al., 2011). It is not even certain that the same functions are important for formal as compared to informal relationships, thus equivalent measures might be contraindicated. Exploring these issues might require beginning with qualitative research to establish the categories of mentoring behavior relevant within the two different settings.

Another issue of concern is the prevalence of marginal or even dysfunctional mentoring relationships (Ragins et al., 2000). However, that concern is not exclusive to formal mentoring relationships (Ivey & Dupré, 2020). While one expects that mentoring relationships should be generally positive, it would be surprising to find that they are uniformly so.

Negative Mentoring Experiences

Just as most relationships have ups and downs, participants in a mentoring relationship will have both positive and negative experiences within the relationship. These experiences may range from minor disagreements or “bumps in the road” to serious relationship dysfunctions. In the early days of mentoring research, scholars emphasized the positive outcomes of mentoring (for both protégé and mentor) to the exclusion of problems or negative outcomes. It was inevitable that attention would turn to the potential problems in mentoring relationships.

It is important first to establish a definition of negative mentoring experiences. Eby (2007) defined relational problems as “real or perceived aspects of mentor-protégé interactions that minimize, negate, or undermine the personal and professional growth of one or both members” (p. 324). With this definition, it is necessary to operationalize the construct of negative mentoring experiences. While there is general agreement on the mentoring functions that are associated with positive outcomes for mentor and protégé, neither potential negative outcomes nor the mentoring functions related to relational problems have been identified.

One taxonomy of relationship difficulties experienced by protégés identified mentor-protégé mismatch with respect to values, personal characteristics, or work style as a typical problem (Eby et al., 2000). Distancing behavior was also noted as a negative experience, as was lack of technical or interpersonal skills. Finally, mentor dysfunctionality brought on by events outside of the workplace (e.g., conflict with spouse or children) was also a source of relational difficulties. These negative events were found to be distinct from positive mentoring functions (Eby et al., 2004).

Mentors, too, identify problems in the relationship, although they are not the same as those reported by protégés (Eby & McManus, 2004). These problems include protégé unwillingness to learn or inability to meet the mentor’s expectations. Other issues noted by mentors include benign deception, conflicts, or disagreements; protégé submissiveness; and protégé dysfunctionality due to the interference of nonwork problems in the workplace (Eby et al., 2008). The research on relational problems identified by mentors and protégés has proceeded separately, such that there is no evidence that mentor and protégé relational problems are related to one another or that mentor and protégé agree on which relational issues exist within their relationship (Eby, 2007).

Negative mentoring experiences are associated with career and attitudinal outcomes just as positive experiences are. However, these relationships have been explored in less depth than have positive experiences. Further, there is less agreement on the types of negative experiences that may characterize the relationship, whereas most research on positive mentoring experiences has been predicated on the mentoring functions (career, psychosocial, and role modeling).

Based on protégé reports, Eby and Allen (2002) found protégé turnover intentions to be related to four negative mentoring experiences—personality mismatch, poor interpersonal skills on the part of the mentor, intentional exclusion by the mentor, and general abuse of power. The same four predictors were related to job satisfaction and job stress. A second study (Eby et al., 2004) supported these results, indicating that dyadic mismatch, distancing behavior, lack of mentor expertise, and general dysfunctionality were related to depressed mood and that all but distancing behavior were related to psychological withdrawal.

Dysfunctional mentoring relationships will never be the norm in organizations, but they do occur. Relationship problems such as those that might occur in a degenerating mentoring relationship may have a strong and enduring effect on one or both participants (Hansson et al., 1990). Relationship difficulties will usually present more complications to the protégé than to the mentor, due to the mentor’s more advanced position and greater power in the organization (Haggard et al., 2011). Scandura (1998) offered an indication of the types of relationship problems that might disrupt a mentoring relationship. Such negative behaviors can range from somewhat serious to quite severe.

General relationship difficulties can arise when the partners have differing views on appropriate behaviors in the work setting. In this type of relationship problem, the parties may disagree on relative values—for example, whether loyalty to one’s boss is more important than single-minded pursuit of organizational goals. Alternatively, one participant may inadvertently put another in a “bind,” such as when a mentor suggests that the protégé prioritize work more highly and family somewhat lower, contrary to the protégé’s preferences. While the guidance is well-intended, it is inconsistent with the protégé’s self-view of having a more balanced lifestyle and leads to concern about not meeting the mentor’s expectations.

Spoiling occurs when an act of betrayal, whether real or perceived, causes one party to regret the investment in the relationship. If the protégé develops two (or more) mentoring relationships simultaneously, the mentors may see themselves in a sort of competition. Rather than escalating the competition, one mentor may decrease his or her investment in the relationship and perhaps in response identify another protégé. Scandura (1998) also indicates that spoiling may occur when the protégé relies on well-intended but inaccurate advice offered by a mentor who is not well-respected in the organization. Despite good intentions on the part of the mentor, that advice may backfire on the protégé, thus leading to feelings of betrayal on the part of the protégé that damage the relationship.

Sabotage may result when one party intends harm to the other, perhaps due to a failure to meet expectations. Sabotage may take the form of political behavior intended to harm the partner’s career. Either party may engage in such behavior. For example, a mentor who has become too dependent on a protégé’s assistance may interfere in the protégé’s promotional opportunities, thus creating a career barrier for the protégé. Alternatively, a protégé who relied on a mentor’s support and found that help was not forthcoming may spread damaging rumors about the mentor throughout the organization (Eby & McManus, 2004).

A more serious problem is exploitation. Exploitation is more commonly associated with the mentor, due to the mentor’s more senior position in the organization. Mentors may encourage overwork among protégés and then take credit for the protégés’ accomplishments (Eby et al., 2000). In addition, the mentor may become a bully, not allowing the protégé to make independent decisions. The mentor instead insists on directing the protégé’s behavior, in essence defeating the developmental purpose of the relationship (Eby et al., 2000).

The counterpart behavior on the part of the protégé is submissiveness. While protégés learn to rely upon the guidance and direction of their mentor, it is important that the protégé question and discuss the mentor’s advice. The mentor should encourage and support such behavior. A protégé’s submissiveness can defeat the developmental purpose of the relationship (Scandura, 1998). Submissiveness can lead to serious exploitation of the protégé and can be an obstacle in the protégé’s career advancement (Eby & McManus, 2004).

Finally, sexual attraction between the partners can lead to very unfortunate consequences for either or both parties. The blurring of boundaries between work and personal relationships is risky. If the personal relationship turns sour, the participants also put their work situation in jeopardy, particularly if others in the organization were aware of the situation.

It seems counterintuitive that an individual would remain in a relationship that is dysfunctional. Further, it is in the organization’s best interest to discourage relationships that have the potential to damage one or both participants. Typically, individuals will exit a relationship that is no longer serving its intended purpose (Ragins & Scandura, 1997). However, there is a potential explanation for the persistence of dysfunctional relationships.

The explanation is based on the concept of conservation of resources (Chen et al., 2015; Hobfoll, 2011). Mentoring relationships are highly valued in organizations because of their potential to benefit the participants, particularly the protégé. Given that individuals are averse to resource loss, the protégé will be reluctant to give up the valued resource (the mentoring relationship), even if it is not currently providing satisfaction or resources. The protégé may view the relationship as having the potential to provide valued resources in the future. That is, after the protégé has “paid the dues” to the mentor, benefits will then flow from the relationship. Supporting this interpretation, Ng and colleagues (2019) found that protégés will reinterpret their experiences in the mentoring relationship in a positive light and will remain in the relationship with an expectation of future benefits. It is not established that such benefits will be forthcoming—the protégé may remain hopeful only due to fear of resource loss. Clearly, much more exploration of dysfunctional (as opposed to simply dissatisfying) relationships is needed, given the potential for damage to both parties (Hansson et al., 1990).

With the advent of positive organizational psychology, the study of negative mentoring experiences has fallen out of favor. The lack of empirical interest is most unfortunate because there is still limited evidence with respect to the types of relational problems individuals may encounter. Further, negative mentoring experiences are an important field of study because they are accorded more weight by individuals than are positive experiences (Eby et al., 2010). Negative experiences are inevitable in interpersonal relationships, so it would be beneficial to know more about how individuals identify, interpret, and respond to them. Finally, given that positive and negative experiences characterize all relationships, including mentoring, scholarship focusing on the relative balance of positive and negative experiences in relationships might shed light on the persistence of negative relationships within organizations.

Diversity Issues in Mentoring

The last area to be considered is the influence of diversity within the mentor-protégé pair. While research on mentoring has primarily focused on relationships between white males (Banerjee-Batist et al., 2019; Brooks & Clunis, 2007), the increasing diversity in the workforce globally suggests that diversity may be an emerging issue in mentoring research. An examination of the literature reveals only a limited number of studies focused on diversity issues, however, with those publications directed primarily to gender with some attention given to race (primarily comparisons of black and white experiences).

Gender and Mentoring Relationships

There are several reasons to believe that mentoring may be more important to women than to men, given that women face more obstacles to career development than men do (Proudford & Washington, 2017). Women need to overcome stereotypes in order to be successful in most organizations (Heilman, 2012; Kusterer et al., 2013; Prime et al., 2008). Those stereotypes may make it more difficult for women to demonstrate good performance on the job, yet the expectations for men and women are consistent, even if their workplace experiences are not (Heilman, 2012).

Further, women must find a work style that men are comfortable with (Allen et al., 2005). That task is challenging for women, because the expected interpersonal style based on gender is at odds with the style that is associated with a successful manager (Heilman, 2012). Absent a working style that is acceptable to male managers, a woman may never access the informal but powerful networks in the organization (Briggs et al., 2012). Those networks, typically dominated by men, are crucial for selection for hierarchical promotion (Ragins, 1997). Clearly, a mentor can support a protégé with all these tasks.

The question arises as to whether women have equivalent access to mentors as men do. Higher levels of management in most organizations are still male dominated. If men are hesitant to mentor women or do not provide the same functions, women may find that their career progress is hampered relative to that of men. Even though women perceive more barriers to finding a mentor than men do (Ragins & Cotton, 1991), O’Neill (2002) concluded based on a literature review that women are just as likely to be mentored as men. Three meta-analyses confirmed that conclusion (Eby et al., 2013; Kammeyer-Mueller & Judge, 2008; O’Brien et al., 2010). Either women’s perceptions of hindrances in seeking a mentor are not reflective of reality or women are expending time and effort to overcome those perceived barriers.

With respect to mentoring functions, the results of analysis by gender among protégés have been mixed. There have been some findings that female protégés receive greater amounts of all three mentoring functions—career and psychosocial mentoring as well as role modeling—than male protégés do (e.g., Fowler et al., 2007). Other studies report null results with respect to gender differences in mentoring functions (e.g., Dreher & Ash, 1990; Ragins & Cotton, 1999). These null results are confirmed by three meta-analyses (Eby et al., 2013; Kammeyer-Mueller & Judge, 2008; O’Brien et al., 2010). Overall, the empirical evidence suggests that women and men have equal access to mentors and that they receive equal mentoring functions. Two studies suggest a slightly different interpretation.

The first study indicates that there is little agreement between mentors and protégés about the existence of the relationship. That is, a protégé may report that a mentoring relationship exists, but the mentor may not share that belief (Welsh et al., 2012). These results are similar to findings in other fields, including communication, in which inaccuracy in partner identification is common. There was no indication of a gender difference in accuracy of identifying one’s dyadic partner. However, these results indicate that when only one party is queried about the nature of the relationship, which is an approach frequently taken in mentoring research, the results may not be trustworthy.

This concern is exacerbated by the results of a second study (Welsh & Diehn, 2018) that focused on mentoring functions. As indicated previously, meta-analyses provide strong evidence of the absence of gender differences in likelihood of having a mentor and in reports of mentoring functions received. Notably, the results do not indicate that men and women are perceiving mentor behavior similarly. Using experimental techniques, Welsh and Diehn (2018) found that given identical descriptions of a relationship, women were more likely to characterize the relationship as mentoring than men were. Further, respondents who were of the same gender as the mentor described in the scenario reported higher levels of mentoring. Given that women are more likely to be in a cross-gender mentoring relationship in organizations (due to the limited number of women at upper levels of organizations), these results call into question the conclusions that there are no gender differences in obtaining a mentor or the mentoring received.

The results of the two studies suggest that perhaps women are less aware than men of the full range of mentoring resources that might be provided in a high-quality mentoring relationship. That is, women report the same levels of mentoring functions as men when objectively they are receiving less. That overestimation may then lead women to report a mentoring relationship when that report is only one-sided. To further support these findings, the scales used to assess mentoring functions (the Mentoring Functions Questionnaire) has been found to be invariant across gender (Hu, 2008), so the differences are unlikely to be due to differences in measurement.

Additional research is necessary to explore these conclusions further. The findings raise questions about other types of developmental relationships in organizations. That is, perhaps gender differences with respect to understanding the full range of support available affect assessments of organizational, leader, or team member support. It is possible that scholars have minimized the obstacles that women face regarding development within organizations simply because women fail to comprehend the availability of support. There is much work to be pursued in this area.

Ethnicity and Mentoring Relationships

Like women, ethnic minorities must also overcome stereotypes regarding their abilities and competence in the work setting (Blake-Beard et al., 2007). However, there is limited research on ethnic minorities, and almost all of that focuses on black as compared to white protégés. While the increasing ethnic diversity within the workplace suggests research on the intersection of ethnicity and mentoring would be welcomed by both the scholarly and practitioner communities, it has not yet been forthcoming.

Despite a strong preference for same-race mentors (Blake-Beard et al., 2011), cross-race relationships predominate for ethnic minorities due to the dearth of same-race individuals to serve as mentors (Blake-Beard et al., 2007; Brooks & Clunis, 2007). Further, blacks report greater difficulty obtaining mentors as compared to whites (Cox & Nkomo, 1991; Viator, 2001b). Specifically, Viator (2001b) found that blacks in public accounting firms were less likely to have an informal mentor, although more likely to have a formal mentor, than whites. While ensuring that individuals who may have difficulty obtaining a mentor have support in finding one is admirable, these findings are open to an alternative interpretation. They may suggest that these professional organizations have fallen prey to the “deficit model” that suggests that minority individuals need formal mentoring in order to overcome deficiencies in background or ability. Following this line of thinking, more recent meta-analyses suggest that the racial barrier to obtaining a mentor is slight if it exists at all (Eby et al., 2013; Kammeyer-Mueller & Judge, 2008).

With respect to mentoring functions, there are minor differences based on protégé race and the racial composition of the dyad. In the public accounting setting, blacks reported less instrumental and psychosocial support than their white counterparts (Viator, 2001b). However, this result was tempered by the finding that black accountants received more psychosocial support from same-race mentors than did white accountants. In a study of female MBAs, Blake-Beard (1999) found that protégé race was unrelated to mentoring received. Further, black women reported comparable salary and promotions to white women but were less satisfied with compensation and career progress. However, there were no interaction effects of race and mentoring received on either objective (salary and promotion) or subjective (satisfaction with compensation and satisfaction with career progress) outcomes. Once again, more recent meta-analyses suggest no differences in mentoring received except that white protégés appear to receive slightly more career mentoring than black protégés (Eby et al., 2013; Kammeyer-Mueller & Judge, 2008).

In order for mentoring relationships to be enriched and successful, it is important for the participants to identify with one another, which may be more difficult in cross-race relationships (Banerjee-Batist et al., 2019; Humberd & Rouse, 2016). In a conceptual exploration focusing only on the sponsorship (career) function of mentoring, Randel and colleagues (Randel et al., 2021) discussed the challenges for cross-race relationships through the various phases of the mentoring relationship (initiation, cultivation, and separation/redefinition). This conceptual model provides a link back to the meta-analytic finding that black protégés receive less career support than white protégés and suggests opportunities to enhance career support in cross-race relationships.

The limited information on the influence of ethnicity on mentoring relationships and outcomes is not surprising, given the emphasis on quantitative research and the relatively low numbers of minority individuals included in most studies; it is, however, disappointing, given the relatively rapid growth of diversity in the workforce in the United States and other countries. A greater focus on diversified mentoring relationships is needed from both a theoretical and a practical perspective. Ragins’s discussion of power in diversified mentoring relationships from many years ago (1997), coupled with the concern about identification expressed by Randel and colleagues (2021), offers a clear starting point to pursue research relative to ethnicity and mentoring.


This article began with a review of the benefits enjoyed by protégés, given that protégés are the primary focus of the relationship. Mentors, too, obtain benefits from the relationship, although the exploration of mentor benefits has been less thorough than similar research centering on protégés. Turning to the origin of the relationship, the question arose as to whether the individuals who can most benefit from mentoring are those who are most likely to experience this type of developmental relationship. This question deserves further investigation, although organizations have developed formal programs to extend the range of protégés engaged in developmental relationships. Alternatively, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of formal mentoring programs relative to informal relationships. Further research is needed to identify features of such programs that can enhance the correspondence of formal and informal relationships. Negative mentoring experiences were discussed, including the identification of dysfunctional relationships. More attention should be directed to the devolution of negative mentoring experiences into dysfunctional relationships as well as to the duration of and reasons for dysfunctional relationships. Finally, there is still much work to be done with respect to diversified mentoring relationships. With over 40 years of research on mentoring, there are still many interesting and important questions to address!


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