The darker side of mentoring

Workplace Mentoring is a process that leads to the development of the protégé, boosts the self esteem of the mentor, and also benefits the firm by preparing the next round of leadership. It seems to be win-win for all concerned. But is the picture in fact so rosy?

Researchers are now becoming more and more aware about the darker side of mentorship.  As far back as the 1980s scholars suggested that such relationships had the potential to become destructive for one or both individuals (Kram, 1980; Feldman, 1999).
What Is Mentoring?

As a verb mentoring is defined as “to advise or train someone, especially a younger colleague” ( Mentoring conjures up the image of an older, wiser, parent-like adult providing guidance and psycho-social support to a younger employee. Very often it is the direct supervisor in the workplace who is paired up by the HR department to mentor a protégé.
What Are Negative Mentoring Experiences (NMEs)? 

NMEs have been defined a “as specific incidents that occur between mentors and proteges, mentors’ characteristic manner of interacting with proteges, or mentors’ characteristics that limit their ability to effectively provide guidance to protégés” (Eby, McManus et al. 2000)

Here are some examples of negative mentoring: 

  • If a mentor creates a profound sense of dependency on himself, this could hinder the protégé from working independently
  • A mentor who is not so committed to the firm, may, through his own example, encourage non-commitment in the protégé too
  • If the protégé is not properly coached by the mentor, this may impede succession planning.

There are also examples of the ‘reluctant mentor’ who is too occupied with his own self-interest and work commitments. Said Sharda, ““I had on more than one occasion spoken to my boss about my desire to learn more in the workplace, but he seemed extremely busy with global visits and with establishing the robustness of some new departments. He just didn’t have time for my professional development.”

Negative Mentoring Relationships Can Last For Years

Some proteges continue in a negative mentoring relationship for years, often because ending the relationship may mean leaving the firm too.

Said Gautam, “Many times I had thought of quitting but that would mean having to quit my job too. This is what held me back because I love my work.” A senior manager, Aditi, continued in a negative mentoring relationship for six years, simply because she loved her work, although she knew her mentor was manipulative and was trying to sabotage her career.

Taniya was in a negative mentoring relationship in the newspaper industry for over a year, but she too did not end the relationship immediately because she felt she was still learning the ropes from peers and from the eco-system. She says, “Also, it would not look good on my resume if I quit the organization within less the year, and so I continued in this relationship, although I was getting nothing out of this in terms of guidance or my professional development.”

Some  protégés don’t quit since they experience both positive and negative experiences with the same mentor, for example in one case a mentor was providing visibility in the firm to his protégé, and yet was simultaneously take credit for the protégé’s ideas.

What Can HR Personnel Do To Ensure Effective Mentoring?

A series of interviews I conducted with proteges from the corporate sector led to rich narratives, parts of which are produced below (the names of the respondents have been changed).  HR personnel may find it useful to see mentoring from the protégé’s perspective :

  • Many proteges say that they would advise others to quit a negative mentoring relationship at the earliest. Says Deepak, “If you feel the relationship is doing nothing for your learning or growth, then get out of such a relationship at the earliest. It’s just not worth it.”
    HR personnel ought to monitor mentoring relationships from the inception, and try and be aware of early signs of difficulty.
  • Aditi said, “It taught me what a mentor should not be. Now that I am in a mentoring role, I make it a point to understand the protégé’s personality and his aspirations and then work with him to make these aspirations possible.
    If the HR personnel has a choice of a mentor, it would be wise to pair up a mentor and protégé who are a personality match.
  • “My mentor did not open doors for me, nor give me access to data that was critical for my growth. I would never do that to any protégé of mine,” said Gauta
    HR personnel need to ensure that mentoring is not restricted to imparting technical skills, but has a much wider ambit, including providing the protégé visibility.
  • “The most important thing is to understand the perspective of the mentee. At times you learn a lot from the mentees also,” said Maneet.
    HR personnel need to ensure that mentoring is seen by the mentor as a two-way relationship.
  • Vinod said, “I would try to understand the person first, his potential and his grey areas. With regard to his grey areas I would teach him to go ahead, especially through my own example.”
    HR personnel need to ensure that the mentor acts as a good role model himself.
  • “What helped me in my toxic relationship with my mentor was that the people that she was reporting to had the wisdom to understand both sides of the story, which helped calm me down.  Maybe the mentors need mentoring or some more training,” said Prithi.
  • Top management also needs to keep an eye on the mentoring process, and wherever required recommend further training for mentors themselves.
    HR personnel need to be vigilant in recognising and then nipping in the bud negative mentoring relationships as these not only hinder the protégé’s growth and cause anxiety, but at times destroy the trust relationship between the mentor and the protégé. Said one protégé, “Whenever I talk to him there is always this suspicion that he is scheming about something. I don’t trust him now. The trust has completely gone.”


  • Eby, L. T., McManus, S. E., Simon, S. A., & Russell, J. E. (2000). The protege’s perspective regarding negative mentoring experiences: The development of a taxonomy. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 57(1), 1-21.
  • Feldman, D. C. (1999). “Toxic mentors or toxic protégés? A critical re-examination of dysfunctional mentoring.” Human Resource Management Review 9(3): 247-278.
  • Kram, K. E. Mentoring processes at work: Developmental relationships in managerial careers. Doctoral dissertation, Yale University, 1980.

(Apart from her scholarly interest in the darker side of mentoring, Prof Payal Kumar also conducts workshops for corporate honchos on “The Dos and Don’ts of Mentoring.” She can be contacted on
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