Ideas for Leaders #199

How Formal Mentoring Affects Workplace Networks

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Key Concept

How do widespread organizational practices like formal mentoring affect employee networking? According to this Idea, formal mentoring programs could provide boosts in visibility, increasing participants’ attractiveness as network partners. However, these benefits seem to arise more for women than men. 

Idea Summary

Networking has been linked to a number of indicators of individual attainment and success within organizations, including promotions and career satisfaction. But despite its acknowledged importance, little is known about the specific organizational practices that can help individuals build interpersonal connections. How do practices like formal mentoring, for example, affect workplace networks?

In order to look into this, Sameer Srivastava at Haas School of Business considers how the introduction of a formal mentoring program affects workplace networks in a working paper released in 2013. Examining a mentoring program in particular targeted at high-potential employees, referred to by the organization in question as a ‘shadowing program’, he found that that such programs can have a positive effect on workplace networks, but those benefits accrue primarily to women.

According to Srivastava’s findings, it appeared that, relative to men, women experienced a greater boost in visibility and enhanced legitimacy stemming from their affiliation with a high-status mentor (i.e. those that occupied high-ranking positions in the organization). These changes increased the attractiveness of women as network partners, and seemed to influence others’ choices to affiliate with them.

An indirect finding was also that benefits to the highest-potential employees may have come at the expense of those who were slightly less well-regarded. Again, with this finding came a difference between the genders: men who did not take part in the program appeared to suffer a greater penalty from not participating than did women who did not take part.

Methodology: In order to test his hypotheses, Srivastava undertook a field experiment involving 91 high-potential protégés in a software development lab in China. Though the lab was located in China, it was part of a US-based global technology products and services firm. They had rolled-out a program targeting well-performing employees who were thought to have management potential. Srivastava analysed participant responses to network surveys and conducted interviews, in order to lead to his findings about how such programs affect workplace networking.

Business Application

Srivastava identifies two main takeaways of his research: first, the program’s network effects seem to have indirectly acted as a vehicle for reducing gender inequality; formal mentoring can provide tangible career benefits (in the form of expanded workplace networks) for women. Reducing gender inequality in the workplace can have huge pay-offs for leaders, including increased retention of their female employees. So in line with these findings, one way to promote equality could be to design effective and targeted formal mentoring programs.

However, Srivastava suggests his findings also provide “a cautionary note” about such programs. “In some cases,” he says, “the benefits that accrue to participants may come at the expense of non-participants who just missed the cut-off for participation. As such and to the extent possible, programs should be designed to provide some supplemental support for these individuals; for example, announce their participation in subsequent targeted mentoring programs.” 

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Idea conceived

  • June 2013

Idea posted

  • August 2013

DOI number



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