Mentoring may be old hat to most of the corporate world, but it's relatively new to warehouses and distribution centers. So if you're looking to introduce mentoring to your warehouse or DC (see "LaborPool," November 2005, for a discussion of the benefits), you'll want to begin by establishing ground rules for the program. Some of the first questions to consider include the following:
• How will the program be structured? Most companies set up their mentoring programs to match one mentor with one mentee, like a Big Brother or Big Sister program. But that's not the only way to do it. Some organizations are using "team mentoring," in which small teams of mentors work with small groups of up-and-comers. Others are experimenting with "e-mentoring," the long-distance equivalent, which has the advantage of allowing you to recruit participants in other company locations. E-mentoring may sound somewhat impersonal, but users report that the elimination of face-to-face contact actually encourages some people to open up.
• What are the boundaries? Setting boundaries is probably the trickiest part of the process. You want to encourage the partners to communicate freely, but you also need to guard against unwanted intrusion into someone's personal life. One mentor might welcome and encourage phone calls at home, while another would consider it invasive. Your job is to draw the lines.
Setting boundaries doesn't mean banning all outside-the-workplace contact—the partners should be able to go out for a cup of coffee or a weekend ballgame if they want to. But it does mean setting specific guidelines for contacts—only during regular working hours, or only on company premises, or only during predetermined meeting times—unless the partners request a waiver for specific circumstances. Say, for example, that John is mentoring Harry, a dockworker who's studying for his commercial drivers license so he can move up to a delivery job. John and Harry both agree that it would be easier to hold study sessions for the written exam at Harry's house on Saturdays. They can request permission from the mentor program's coordinator. The coordinator then speaks privately with both parties to make certain that everyone's comfortable with the arrangement before signing off on the request.
• How long will the relationship last? When setting up a mentoring arrangement, specify both the start date and the end date. In some cases, the end date will be determined by an event. For example, in the case of John and Harry cited above, the mentoring relationship would come to a natural conclusion once Harry passes that licensing exam. If they both want to keep it going after that point, they would have to apply for a renewal of the relationship.
In other cases, however, there's no obvious concluding event. For those situations, you should be ready to calculate a finish date based on the standard period you've chosen, such as six months. By setting time limits, you not only give the participants an out, but you may also boost your recruiting efforts. Employees who might have been reluctant to participate in an open-ended mentoring program may be happy to sign on once they realize that it doesn't involve an unlimited commitment.
• What happens in the case of a mismatch? Remember, the process of matching up mentors and mentees is an inexact science. Sometimes, the partnership just doesn't work out. You need to have an exit strategy in place for those cases. Draw up a formal policy for disbanding mentor relationships and make sure that everyone involved knows how to proceed if they find it's not a good fit.
Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on mentoring. Next month's column will discuss how to recruit participants.