Mentoring racial or ethnic minorities

This article is part of a series from Good Practice, offered to ICAS members as part of the ICAS mentoring programme.

This checklist offers advice to any staff member hoping to mentor an employee from a racial or ethnic minority. Based on the work of Professor David A Thomas of Harvard Business School, it defines the roles and purposes of the mentor. It also identifies the particular challenges posed by inter-racial mentoring relationships, and offers some tips for all would-be mentors.

Thomas, among many others, has identified the mentoring relationship as a key method for overcoming the differences in career progression patterns, frequently identified between white and minority employees.[1] The relationship is, however, particularly challenging in this context, and the mentor must take on a variety of different roles and responsibilities in order to maximise the impact of the arrangement.


  • coach
  • advocate
  • counsellor
  • adviser
  • friend


  • Promoting mentees within the organisation. Placing them in high-profile positions of trust to flag up their abilities.
  • Placing mentees on crucial project teams, to give them a variety of experience which will equip them for promotion.
  • Providing crucial career advice that enables mentees to avoid being sidelined.
  • Continuing to sponsor mentees' abilities at the later stages of their careers.
  • Protecting mentees from unjust and prejudiced criticism by advocating their skills across the organisation.
  • Creating the 'three Cs' within the mentor: confidence, competence and credibility.
  • Continually expanding the network of sponsors and mentors of the employee, throughout the functional areas of the organisation, and at all levels of seniority.


  • Negative stereotypes can occur on either side of the relationship, resulting in a lack of trust that must be broken down.
  • Your role model function can seem problematic to fulfil if there is a racial or ethnic difference between you and your mentee.
  • Recommended behaviours from yourself may be perceived differently when adopted by a mentee of a different race or ethnic background.
  • Scepticism about the possibility of a suitably intimate relationship can occur for a cross-racial mentoring partnership, if there is not a long history of such relationships existing and working within the organisation. Your mentee may become suspicious about ulterior motives in this instance.
  • If the relationship is unprecedented in the organisation, public scrutiny can produce undue pressure, and discourage a mentor or mentee.
  • Peer resentment can be a problem in such an unprecedented situation, where your mentee can be seen as unduly favoured.
  • The trait of 'protective hesitation' can frequently occur within mentoring relationships across race or ethnicity boundaries. In this situation, you may be tempted to hold back from voicing potentially constructive criticism of the mentee, through fear of being perceived as racist. This hesitation may occur unconsciously.
  • In a further problem arising from 'protective hesitation', your mentee may be reluctant to acknowledge or address the issue of racial difference within the relationship.


  • Appreciate that your role as mentor will develop along with the relationship over the years.
  • Be sure to acknowledge that race and prejudice can be obstacles in the way of a successful relationship.
  • Openly discuss issues of racial difference at the very start of the relationship.
  • Offer open-ended advice, appreciating that a change in ethnicity could alter the effectiveness of the advice.
  • Leave room in the discussion of all advice and guidance for a consideration of the impacts of race and ethnicity
  • Set up role model relationships for your mentee, if he/she expresses a preference for a role model of his/her own race or ethnicity.
  • Work consistently to expand the network of supporters, advocates, sponsors and mentors available to your mentee.
  • Advertise your mentoring relationship and its positive results to encourage others to participate in similar practices.

The mentoring relationship is a long-term creative effort, and issues of race and ethnicity are bound to impact upon the creative processes. However, trust and honesty are the first steps to making a strong base for the partnership, and for the career of your mentee.

Advertising the successes of the relationship itself, as well as of your mentee, will encourage others to embark on similar projects. Long term, this can have a significant impact upon the career development of racial and ethnic minority employees within your organisation.

[1]  Details of this theory can be found in David A Thomas, 'The Truth About Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters', Harvard Business Review, April 2001, pp 99-107.


  • Career mentoring resources

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