The word “mentoring” often brings to mind the image of a seasoned professional passing along wisdom gained through years of experience and guiding the development of a junior employee. However, a peer to peer mentoring program (also known as lateral mentoring) occurs between individuals at the same organizational level, with more experienced employees offering their skills and knowledge to those with less experience.
Done well, these programs can offer substantial benefits for organizations and their employees. Here are five of them, followed by a list of best practices for implementing a peer mentoring program.
5 benefits of peer mentoring
1. Transfer of knowledge
According to a 2021 study, peer mentoring relationships are a valuable resource for the transfer of knowledge, specifically for the transfer of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. Because much of the knowledge shared between peers comes from personal experience, mentees gain the benefit of information that might not be available through the organization’s formal knowledge management and training processes.
Additionally, while traditional mentoring is unidirectional, the reciprocity that is common in peer mentoring means that the transfer of knowledge gained through personal experience can occur in either direction, benefiting mentors as well.
2. Enhanced diversity
The study cited above also examined the impact of peer mentoring on increasing diversity in the leadership ranks of organizations. It found that peer mentoring relationships can shape attitudes and behaviors. According to the authors, peer mentoring “can serve as a mechanism for social influence that is relevant for enhancing diversity within organizational leadership.”
Employees who may not be recognized for their leadership potential early on, may subsequently gain that visibility when paired with peer mentors. Peer mentoring gives mentees an opportunity to shine in their areas of responsibility, and the social learning that occurs through the relationship can make it easier for them to advance in their careers.
4. A culture of collaboration
Peer mentoring gives both mentors and mentees firsthand experience in working together to achieve shared goals, often across functional lines. In fact, some organizations deliberately pair individuals from different functional areas in an effort to break down structural silos that can impede collaboration.
Cross-functional mentor-mentee pairs model collaborative behaviors and develop collegial relationships that last long after mentoring concludes. A certain degree of collaboration may also occur between the individuals’ respective managers in supporting the mentoring arrangement.
3. Enhanced talent retention
In March of 2022, there were more jobs available in the U.S. than jobseekers. That is unlikely to change any time soon. Every separation, voluntary or involuntary, costs an organization a great deal of money, not to mention the resulting loss of expertise and productivity. Peer mentoring can go a long way toward enabling organizations to retain talent.
The Work Institute’s 2022 Retention Report shows that as much as 22% of turnover occurs within the first 45 days of employment, and up to 40% of employees who leave their jobs do so within their first year. One-on-one attention during that critical first year from a peer who is familiar with the job requirements can ease the transition into a new role.
Peer mentoring is tangible proof of an organization’s commitment to employee development.
Peer mentoring in these situations can enhance training and help ensure the successful transfer of new skills and knowledge to the job. It also gives mentees someone they feel comfortable discussing their job-related challenges with, which can ward off the frustration and isolation some experience when trying to acclimate to a new work environment. Furthermore, peer mentoring is tangible proof of an organization’s commitment to employee development, which can aid in retaining employees eager for long-term professional growth.
5. A leadership pipeline
Employees who serve as mentors gain the opportunity to develop important leadership skills. Their managers are able to observe them in a leadership role and see how well-suited they might be to advance in the future. This is a particularly valuable benefit because of what’s widely acknowledged to be a leadership gap, caused by the retirement of Baby Boomers, changes in the nature of work, and other factors. Many organizations haven’t paid enough attention to planning for their future leadership needs, but peer mentoring is an effective and low-cost way to begin building leadership capacity from within.
5 best practices for peer mentoring programs
1. Get leadership and stakeholder buy-in
Peer mentoring programs are difficult to sustain without the buy-in and support of an organization’s leaders. The impetus for launching a peer mentoring program often comes from Learning and Development, but wherever the idea originates, those who make decisions and control resources need to recognize the potential benefits.
According to SHRM, clearly defining the reason for the program is important to getting buy-in from all involved. Is peer mentoring being proposed to improve retention, or as part of succession planning? The reason for the program should make its value apparent to the business and employees.
Having a dedicated peer mentoring committee can also help. Many organizations establish a committee made up of key leaders, L&D staff, front-line supervisors and managers of the target population for mentoring, and individuals from that target population. This committee, led by a facilitator, establishes the program’s goals and takes responsibility for designing and advocating for the program.
2. Develop guidelines for the peer mentoring program
L&D teams typically work with this kind of committee to translate the defined goals into the structure of the peer mentoring program. This involves addressing such issues as:
- The duration of a peer mentoring relationship — four to six months is common.
- The frequency and length of mentor-mentee meetings. For example, a minimum of one hour per week.
- Eligibility and selection of mentees. Will they be new hires? Individuals assuming a new role? Those experiencing performance issues?
- Eligibility and selection of peer mentors. Should they have tenure with the organization? Will they be volunteers, or nominated by a supervisor? What specific qualities should they possess? Ideally, mentees will have a say in who their mentor will be.
- Training of peer mentors. Training on leadership and communication skills may be appropriate.
- Support for peer mentors. Regular meetings with the program facilitator or coordinator are recommended. What other resources from L&D can be provided?
- Post-mentoring evaluation. This involves answering the question: how and when will program outcomes be measured?
It can be very helpful to document the responsibilities of mentors and mentees in an agreement that functions much like a contract between the two. A mentoring agreement tells each party what they can expect from the other — respect and confidentiality, for example — and lays the groundwork for trust.
Collaborating on the agreement provides an opportunity for pairs to work out the logistical details of the peer mentoring relationship. The immediate supervisors of the two individuals should sign the agreement, as well. Acknowledging the commitment that has been made helps ensure that scheduled sessions are a protected calendar priority.
It’s important that both mentors and mentees have realistic expectations about the scope and focus of peer mentoring. All parties should understand up front what peer mentoring is and is not. For example, peer mentoring is not a form of coaching, though many mistakenly conflate the two. Although they may involve some of the same activities, such as providing constructive feedback, mentoring and coaching are distant cousins.
Peer mentoring is driven by the mentee’s need for growth and development. Peer coaching is more narrowly focused and driven by the need to ensure improvement in a particular aspect of job performance. Consequently, the peer coaching relationship is of shorter duration, usually ending when the person being coached achieves a predetermined level of task performance. Additionally, one peer coach may be working with several employees, whereas peer mentors typically work one-on-one with their mentees over a longer period of time.
3. Communicate what peer mentoring isn’t
Peer mentoring is not counseling, either. Mentees sometimes confide in their mentors about personal issues and life struggles when the relationship is a trusting one. Although trust is important in mentoring, peer mentors are not equipped to provide advice or counseling on personal matters. Most organizations have professional resources for such assistance, and peer mentors should be apprised of the limits of their responsibilities in that regard.
4. Develop criteria for peer mentor selection
Establishing a pool of potential mentors that cuts across seniority levels, departments, and personal backgrounds will help ensure that good pairings can be made on short notice. The following list of selection criteria was compiled from a number of peer mentoring programs in a variety of settings, including health care, higher education, and financial services. It provides a good starting point on what to look for in potential peer mentors.
- Strong listening and comprehension skills
- Sound reasoning and creative problem-solving
- Self-motivation and productivity in a non-structured work environment
- Willingness to ask for and act upon constructive feedback
- A commitment to personal growth and development
- Social and emotional maturity
- A history of consistently honoring commitments
- Consistent performance under pressure and time constraints
- Demonstrated leadership potential
- Administrative ability
- Ability to motivate others positively
- Appropriate handling of sensitive or difficult situations
- Initiative to do more than asked
- Easy adaptation to new situations
- Appropriate prioritization of responsibilities
- Genuine care and concern for others
- Strong interpersonal skills
- A positive and encouraging attitude
Some organizations that seek volunteers to serve as peer mentors ask candidates to complete a self-assessment against such selection criteria. This can be an early step in the process of developing new peer mentors.
5. Begin with onboarding
Organizations that have the resources to provide peer mentoring as part of employee onboarding can accelerate the acculturation of new hires, and the development of a sense of connection and belonging. This can be particularly beneficial for employees who will be working remotely or in a satellite location.
Peer mentoring provides a sense of connection and belonging.
Consider the waste of time and other resources that can occur during the weeks or months new employees spend trying to figure out how things are done in a new environment. Having a peer mentor gives these employees a head start in becoming acclimated in a more personal and nuanced way than reading a handbook or sitting through an orientation.
Perhaps the most valuable result of initiating peer mentoring during onboarding is that it gives new hires a point of contact for acquiring needed information. It can be far less intimidating to ask a peer mentor questions than to repeatedly seek a supervisor’s assistance.
Like any other program, peer mentoring should undergo monitoring and evaluation to measure its success. This can involve a variety of techniques employed at different points for different purposes.
Feedback from program participants is essential and can be obtained through such methods as:
- Periodic meetings between participants and L&D staff. Meeting separately with peer mentors and mentees is likely to yield the most candid information.
- Asking mentors and mentees to provide a written summary at the end of their mentoring relationship.
- Administering participant surveys at strategic points.
- Hosting periodic informal get-togethers of all current and past participants to discuss how the peer mentoring program can be improved. Anecdotal feedback can be very revealing.
The goal should be to determine how both mentors and mentees feel the program is helping them grow. Do mentees believe the experience is meeting their expectations? Are they getting what they need? What do peer mentors feel they are gaining from the experience? Are they getting the support they need from the organization to be effective?
Other methods for evaluating a peer mentoring program include:
- Establishing measurable KPIs for assessing the impact peer mentoring is having on performance and employee retention.
- Including questions about the impact of peer mentoring on the organization’s culture in employee satisfaction surveys.
- Keeping track of signup figures for both mentors and mentees. Are there enough mentors for the number of employees who want to participate? Is the program becoming more or less popular over time?
Enthusiasm for any program can wane in time, unless great care is taken to keep it vital and relevant. Peer mentoring programs need the same commitment and continuous improvement. L&D professionals can play a key role not only in implementing a program, but also guiding its evolution to meet the needs of an ever-changing workforce.