Confidentiality: A Slippery SlopeDoes the conversation that occurs between a mentor and mentee necessarily remain confidential during a time when the mentee is being considered for a career move? Or, when a leadership team sits to talk about whether to move someone who has been a mentee, can the mentor add to the conversation from his or her experience with the mentee? Or, is the conversation between the mentor and the mentee always strictly confidential? Do you have any guidelines on this question?
Yes, we do.
Organizations should address the thorny issue of confidentiality when formulating mentoring program guidelines. One would anticipate that suitability for a mentee’s promotion might be discussed at some point, especially in the case of a high potential mentoring program.
Mentors need to know how to navigate this slippery slope. The role of the mentor relative to mentee promotion (clarification, qualification and expectations) should be clearly spelled out to avoid a midstream collapse of confidentiality when under pressure during a promotion discussion.
So, setting up agreements early on about confidentiality would certainly address your scenario. However, there is another aspect to consider. Confidentiality between mentor and mentee is an assumption until the topic is openly discussed. Mentoring partners need to hold a robust conversation about it, share their assumptions about confidentiality and come to a mutual agreement. Programmatic guidelines, if they exist, should be reviewed during this conversation.
Advocacy is one of the most valuable contributions that mentors can make in supporting their mentees. By mutual agreement, mentors should be able to share positive aspects of their mentee’s leadership growth and readiness. A mentor’s participation in a promotion conversation is not a performance review – that is the supervisor’s role. Mentors who have experienced disappointment in their mentoring relationship and performance should limit input to the individual’s role as mentee, not in the employee role. The mentor might say, “Carol and I weren’t able to meet as frequently as we had hoped. She didn’t complete the project we had begun work on during our mentoring relationship, so I am not able to offer a reliable picture of how Carol might lead the new project team.” What would constitute a breach of the relationship might be, “Carol was completely disorganized and unprofessional about how she approached her project and I don’t see that she has the skills sets you are looking for.”
We strongly recommend an up-front agreement about confidentiality when promotion discussions are on the table. While a mentor might comment about a mentee (“I’ve seen a lot of growth in Mary over the past year”), the confidentiality of the mentor/mentee conversation needs to be honored. It can be a slippery slope.