By Jean Rhodes

UMass Boston, where I’ve taught for over 20 years, boasts the third most diverse campus in the country–and over 60% of our students are first-generation. This diversity of backgrounds and experiences is a major strength, but it also means that many of our students face challenges as they navigate the college experience. And, unfortunately, those students who would benefit most from support, are often the least likely to seek it out. Many have not been socialized to think strategically about cultivating and maintaining ties with professors, peer mentors, or caring staff who might be able to help them or connect them to new opportunities. Throughout high school, many had less help from their parents in managing their relationships with teachers, with whom strong connections can have lasting positive effects. Consequently, they don’t feel the same sense of need or even entitlement to support, and are less likely than their upper- and middle-class peers to seek help from them.

Even when mentoring opportunities or programs are offered, it is often the most advantaged students who sign up. Researchers Jack (2016) and Yee (2016) have studied this phenomenon and students’ resistance to support, including such responses as: “I don’t do office hours. I never thought of myself as an ‘‘office hours’’ person. In high school, I didn’t talk to teachers. I walk in and sit down.” “I still feel great hesitation talking to professors…I have never felt comfortable speaking to adults as equals or even asking them questions.” “It’s a social class thing….My dad would always teach me, ‘You don’t want to get where you are based on kissing ass, right? You want it based on hard work.’”

The consequences of not seeking mentoring support can ripple across a lifetime, in lost opportunities and increased stress. Now, as summarized  by Suzanne Oliver, Wall Street Journal) October, 30, 2021 (below), a new study suggests that this self-selection into mentoring opportunities carries into the workplace in ways that affect careers:

“Companies have a problem when they make workplace mentorship programs optional: The workers who would benefit most are less likely to sign up. That is the conclusion of a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Where we might think that those who are likely to benefit the most from mentoring are going to raise their hands and choose to participate, we find that it is actually the opposite,” says Jason Sandvik, assistant professor at the Freeman School of Business at Tulane University, and one of the study’s four co-authors. “Those who are likely to benefit the most from mentorship are those who opted out.”

In the study, researchers followed two groups of newly hired sales agents at a company that markets telephone, internet, and television services. In the first group, half of the sales agents were assigned mentors and half were not. In the second group, new hires could choose whether they wanted a mentor. But of those who requested a mentor, only half actually were given mentors.

Mentors were instructed to share product knowledge, discuss their own sales tactics and practice the company’s sales protocol with protégés generated 19% more daily revenue during the first two months than the non-mentored employees, and their outperformance persisted over the six months of the study.

In the group where mentoring was optional, outcomes were markedly different. Simply put, the gains associated with required mentorship all but disappeared when employees were given the option of opting out. New hires who asked for and received a mentor did not perform significantly better than those who asked for but did not receive a mentor. And those who opted out completely performed significantly worse than those who asked for but did not receive a mentor. The weakest performers, as suggested by the results—those who would have likely benefited most from mentorship—were the least likely to ask for assistance.

The authors of the study said this suggests that those who asked for a mentor had the ambition and skills to succeed regardless of whether they received mentorship.

The takeaway, says W. Brad Johnson, professor of psychology in the department of leadership, ethics and law at the U.S. Naval Academy, is that managers should set an expectation that all employees participate in mentorship programs. While the study was not able to predict who might opt out of mentorship, there are many reasons people choose not to participate, says Prof. Johnson, who wasn’t involved in the study. They may suspect there are no mentors with whom they would feel comfortable for cultural or gender reasons. They may feel that they aren’t good enough to be mentored, or that they are too vulnerable in a mentorship relationship, or that they don’t have the extra time it might require. They might also think that asking for assistance signals weakness, the study suggests.

That reluctance to ask for help can negatively affect performance and career advancement. Requiring mentorship “lifted people who were otherwise going to fall behind their peers,” says study co-author Christopher T. Stanton, an associate professor at Harvard Business School.”

This study and others point to the benefits of both teaching young people to recruit mentors, and of requiring mentoring programs so that they reach those who need them most.