Five Best Practices for Cross-Cultural Mentoring in Organizations

By Rhonda L. Norman

The workforce is dynamic and continually changing with growing numbers of participants, including an aging workforce, women, people with alternative lifestyles, and people of color (Wentling & Palma-Rivas, 1998). Dixie Sommers, the Assistant Commissioner of the Office of Occupational Statistics, cites in the Monthly Labor Review that the labor force will continue to become more diverse, with Hispanics making up 18% of the workforce by 2020 with a growth rate of 3% and in comparison Blacks will experience 1% growth in labor force participation (Sommers & Flannigan, 2012).


Many effective and successful organizations have recognized the strategic benefits of a diverse workforce and have responded to the changing demographics with one evidence based career development practice in particular, mentoring (www.DiversityInc.com, 2012; Thomas, K., 2005). According to Diversity Inc’s top 50 companies, the data shows that formal cross-cultural mentoring programs are on the rise, with 46% more managers participating in mentoring today than five years ago (www.DiversityInc.com, 2012). In addition, 100% of the 50 companies now have formal mentoring programs compared to 72 percent in 2007.



Kram (1985) operationalized mentoring tasks in organizations from two perspectives, instrumental or career development and psychosocial mentoring. In practice, mentoring happens on two different levels at work, with career-related and psychosocial mentoring being equally valuable components (Kram, 1985; Koberg et al., 1998). Career-related mentoring has a career development orientation, including career guidance, assignment to challenging jobs, protection, exposure or visibility within an organization, and sponsorship. Psychosocial mentoring has an interpersonal orientation, providing role modeling, counseling, acceptance, confirmation, and friendship. Developmental relationships or mentoring is said to be related to positive outcomes at work such as higher pay, more promotions, increased career self-efficacy, career satisfaction and reduced turnover (Ragins & Cotton, 1999; Koberg et al., 1998; Blake, 2002; Thomas, D.A, 1990; Thomas, D.A., 2001).


Cross-Cultural Mentoring

The traditional mentoring approach is based upon a monocultural European male perspective with the expectation of assimilation for the protégé (Williams & Schwiebert, 2000; Ragins, 1997). In addition, traditional mentoring is usually hierarchical and patriarchal but multicultural mentoring is more communal and collaborative (Bova, 1995 as cited in Williams & Schwiebert, 2000). With a diverse workforce there is a greater need for access to mentoring relationships, which may necessitate a cross-cultural mentoring experience, within a multicultural mentoring context.


Williams & Schwiebert (2000) discuss cross-cultural mentoring in the context of a multiculturally inclusive mentoring perspective, one that includes providing access to those who have traditionally been excluded from mentoring relationships (Gonzales-Rodriguez, 1995 as cited in Williams & Schwiebert, 2000). The multiculturally inclusive mentoring must include the kind of equity that encourages discourse, critical dialogue and an understanding of the role of power (Williams & Schwiebert, 200, pg 60). The writers further emphasize the need for dialogue between the mentor and protégé regarding their unique experiences, personalities, interests and backgrounds. This aspect of the mentoring relationship is particularly salient in cross-cultural pairs who are primarily working from an initial position of difference. The question could be raised as to why is there a need to focus on cross-cultural mentoring when the research shows that mentor and protégé of same race, same gender have produced positive outcomes (Thomas, D.A., 1990; Thomas, D.A., 2001; Thomas, K., 2005; Blake-Beard, 2002). The answer is very practical, in that there are limited numbers of same race and same gender pairs available within the organizations (Williams & Schwiebert, 2000).



Therefore, many organizations are establishing formal mentoring programs that are being utilized to develop promising new hires and assist with recruitment but also prevent the revolving door metaphor within the organization. Since formal mentoring programs are usually time-limited from 6 months to 1 year, it is important to establish an effective mentoring relationship early on (Lankau, Riordan & Thomas, 2005). This writer has included five recommendations that will assist in building an effective cross-cultural mentoring relationship. In order for these recommendations to be effective it is helpful to have them embedded in an organizational culture that is supportive of diversity, equity and organizational cultural competency (Thomas, K. 2005). The literature recommends that mentors strive to see themselves in their protégés. If you can identify with each other, you’ll forge closer relationships and build trust (Thomas, 1990; Thomas, 2001; Schwiebert, 2000; Turban, Dougherty & Lee, 2002).


  1. Stereotypes are present with people of color and diverse populations. These stereotypes and other issues must be exposed and discussed within a learning environment. If the mentoring is a formal program, then training related to mentoring and cultural issues will be helpful (Ensher & Murphy, 1997; Ragins, 1997; Williams & Schwiebert, 2000).


  1. The differences and similarities within the dyad must not remain a mystery, and are helpful to address in the early stages of the mentoring relationship.


  1. If you find that the mentoring relationship seems constrained, increase the meeting time and allow for time to discuss and acknowledge similarities, interests, values and other background information (Ensher & Murphy, 1997; Ragins, 1997; Turban, Dougherty & Lee, 2002).


  1. A tool that has been used to discuss differences in a non-threatening way is the Cultural Autobiography; this allows the dyad to share in a more intentional and structured way (Vontress, Johnson & Epps, 1999).





Blake-Beard, S.D., (1999). The costs of living as an outsider within: an analysis of the mentoring relationships and career success of black and white women in the corporate sector. Journal of Career Development. 26 (1), 21-36.


Chao, G. T. (1997). Mentoring Phases and Outcomes. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 51,15-28.


www.DiversityInc. com


Ensher, E. A., & Murphy, S. E., (1997). Effects of race, gender, perceived similarity, and contact on mentor relationships. Journal of Vocational Behavior 50, 460-481.


Koberg, C., Boss, W., & Goodman, E., (1998). Factors and outcomes associated with mentoring among health-care professionals. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 53, 58-72.


Kram, K. (1985). Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. United Press of America.


Lankau, M. J., Riordan, C.M. & Thomas, C.H. (2005). The effects of similarity and liking in formal relationships between mentors and protégés. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 67, 252-265.


Ragins, R. (1997). Antecedents of diversified mentoring. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 51, 90-109.


Ragins, R. & Cotton, J. (1999). Mentor functions and outcomes: A comparison of men and women in formal and informal mentoring relationships. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84,(4), 529-550.


Sommers, D.& Franklin, J.C. (2012). Employment outlook 201-2020. Monthly Labor Review. Department of Labor.


Thomas, D.A.(1990). The impact of race on managers’ experiences of developmental relationships (mentoring and sponsorship): An intra-organizational study. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 11, 479-492.


Thomas, K. M. (2005). Diversity Dynamics in the Workplace. Thomson Wadsworth.


Turban, D.B., Dougherty, T.W., & Lee, F.K. (2002). Gender, race, and perceived similarity effects in developmental relationships: The moderating role of relationship duration. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 61, 240-262.


Vontress, C. E., Johnson, J. & Epp, L., (1999). Cross-cultural counseling: a case book. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.


Wentling, R. & Palmas-Rivas,N. (1998). Current status and future trends of diversity initiativesin the workplace: Diversity experts perspective. Human Resource Development Quarterly. 9,(3), 235-253.


Williams, J. & Schwiebert, V.L. (2000). Multicultural aspects of the mentoring process. In: Schwiebert, V.L. (Ed.) Mentoring: Creating Connected, Empowered Relationships. American Counseling Association. Alexandria, VA.


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Dr. Rhonda Norman Ed.D, LPCC-s, LICDC, is an Assistant Professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she teaches the career counseling class at XU.  She has an M.A. in Rehabilitation Counseling, an ME.d. in Human Resource Development, and an Ed.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision from the University of Cincinnati. She has over 20 years of experience in counseling, consultation and coaching and has worked in an internal, human resource-based employee assistance program. Dr. Norman maintains a small private practice, with research interests that include women’s career development, work, and mentoring. She can be reached at norman@xavier.edu

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