Resources for mentoring an employee in a protected class
August 11, 2015 5:57 PM   Subscribe

I'm researching resources for a manager (M) who mentors with someone (S) who has experienced discrimination and disadvantage throughout their life. M wants to support S practically and with sensitivity.

M is aware that M's own experiences are privileged in comparison, and supports S's career trajectory. However, M says that when clients rate S negatively on evaluations, S always (not just sometimes) says that it is because S is from X background, and clients always treat X people badly. This may sometimes be true, maybe even most times. But this framing of a situation means that S doesn't ever identify areas to improve in, and in M's opinion, S has sometimes made errors. (M is also believes that M makes mistakes, as do all people, and seeks to improve M's self).

At the level and industry both M and S work at, there is no micromanagement, so M can't personally identify what S might be doing that causes negative evaluations. HR has been contacted for advice, but HR in this organisation are more concerned with counting, and legalities than this level of support. There is a department that assists people who are of X persuasion, but their mission is more to protect S and other X people from discrimination than to work through this issue.

M is afraid that if S doesn't become more self-reflective, S's experiences in the role will not be enjoyable, and S's ability in the role will not improve. My personal knowledge of M is as a supportive, collaborative, encouraging and motivating manager, who has sparked enormous loyalty in most of M's staff. M's ethics are of a high order, and M does not support discrimination.

Websites, e-books, academic articles preferred over books (instant access) but anything you have on this tricky management issue would be appreciated
posted by b33j to Work & Money (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, one possibility is that S is playing up S's status to avoid criticism. Just because someone is a member of a protected class doesn't make them a stand up person. Of course, I have no way of knowing this is the case, and it wouldn't be appropriate for M to make this allegation, but it sounds like a possible explanation.

Is there some objective, perhaps quantitive, measure of S's performance?

If not, probably the best thing to do is to require S to preform regular self-evaluations that *must* include some areas that need improvement. If S comes up with things like, "My main fault is that I care too much and work too hard," perhaps M could consider some type of peer-to-peer evaluation system.
posted by girl flaneur at 7:28 PM on August 11, 2015

At the level and industry both M and S work at, there is no micromanagement, so M can't personally identify what S might be doing that causes negative evaluations.
Can I constructively challenge this situation and ask if there are other ways that M can gather some direct evidence about S's performance? Even if S were not a member of a protected class, I think that it's a yellow flag for a manager to be giving a subordinate feedback in a context where the manager's opinion appears to be formed on hearsay or second-hand evidence. In my experience, one's job as a manager and mentor is always going to benefit from being able to give concrete advice about a colleague's performance, and not being able to identify specific behaviors that need improvement seems like a bug in the work structure.

If it is difficult or impossible for the manager to be able to work side-by-side or directly observe the interaction, would it be possible for another peer of S's to provide neutral feedback to M?

Though, to consider the actual question and specific advice request about helping someone be more self-reflective: does M hold regular one-on-one meetings with their subordinates? Are these meetings conducted in a regular schedule regardless of subordinate performance and used to provide a regular opportunity for coaching and giving M a chance to see how they can make the lives and jobs of each of their subordinates better? If so, could M frame the question less as S being isolated for critique (which it feels like is part of the background for the reaction) but more like ask S to collaborate on a problem? Like:

M: "Oh, hey, you know, we've had a bunch of really hard to manage clients lately and I know that you've been in the direct line of fire yourself. What do you think is behind that and how can I help?" (I want you, S, to name the problem and offer a solution)

S: "well, from what I'm seeing clients are waiting a long time until they can talk to a rep. We need to defuse that rage before they take it out on us. It's rough. Maybe we can hire more people so we don't have to make them wait?"

M: "Yeah, good point. Here's some ideas on how I can work to help with that: [ideas], but you know sometimes, no matter what, things are going to get busy and clients are going to get impatient anyway. Like, the customer who came in last week and got really pissed. How would you have handled that differently?"

An important part of this interaction is for M to be sincere about doing his part to help make the situation better by being open to feedback from S about how to make the job better, but then also helping S realize that an important part of making the job better is to actually be better at the job. Essentially you need to reinforce that you are always on the same side, and you're coming from a position of helping and, in some ways, serving the people that you're managing. If you single out a subordinate as a target of criticism and castigation then they're going to get defensive and deflective, but if this manager has good skills for empathy and collaboration then that can be harnessed to help the subordinate tackle their performance as an abstract problem to be solved rather than a personal shortcoming that causes shame.
posted by bl1nk at 7:57 PM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

M may not consciously support discrimination but may still lack knowledge about the extent to which X people are subject to others' prejudice.*

Is there a way to compare S's evaluations to others who are of X background (at least for your own knowledge, not necessarily to share with S if those others' evaluations are confidential)? Is there a way for S to get support from X peers or managers?

Assuming not, I think the coaching style that bl1nk suggested might be best.
posted by salvia at 8:19 PM on August 11, 2015

* I know you know this, but not knowing S myself, and without more info on S's level of awareness, I kinda felt like it needed to be said.
posted by salvia at 8:22 PM on August 11, 2015

FYI, a "protected class" is a characteristic for which people are protected from being discriminated against, and are usually all legally described to be applicable to everyone (e.g. everyone has a national origin or a level of physical/mental ability). A person isn't "in a protected class" and it's diminishing to describe S that way.
posted by deathmaven at 11:47 AM on August 12, 2015

Response by poster: Deathmaven, thank you. The term isn't used in my country which may be why I used it inappropriately. I sincerely apologise to anyone who is hurt by my use of this term.

Thank you everyone who answered the question. I hope it was clear that I have tried to be as sensitive as possible to S's situation, especially as M's motivation is primarily to assist S is moving forward careerwise. M and I both agree (and I'm sorry I didn't make this clearer) that S has been subject to discrimination on ways we can never truly understand as we will never experience it. Where this occurs, and as much as is practicable, M and the organisation seek to support S and assist in anyway possible.

The one issue is that S refuses to acknowledge any lack or room for development or error of judgement, as S sees all negative experiences/complaints bound up in discrimination. While this is possible, it seems that it might be helpful for S to sometimes identify areas of improvement based on experiences in the workplace. However, what I'm seeing here is that this is not possible for M to suggest ever, and this is what M suspected.

Example conversation after negative thing:
M: what do you think work better next time?
S: nothing, because clients all dislike people who are x
M: so there's no action you could take to avoid this client response? Different communication style, faster response?
S: it's not my fault. You don't understand. You are not x.

Again, I'm not looking for ask me to resolve this issue but to suggest resources as this obviously complicated and delicate.
posted by b33j at 1:56 PM on August 12, 2015

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