Can I get what I need from a mentor I don't trust?
April 5, 2019 6:05 AM   Subscribe

I recently spoke with someone in the c-suite about my growth and potential and asked them for a recommendation for a mentor to give me a different perspective on some things. The person they recommended is theoretically great for what I'd like to learn. However...he really rubs me the wrong way, and a few years back, I heard him making jokes about my weight to several people. (He has a passing knowledge of who I am but we've never worked together, so I don't think it was personal but rather just a general, 'hey it's fun to make fun of fat people' situation, which is *so* not the culture of my workplace and *SO* not okay with me.) How can I get what I need out of this relationship when it can't be one based on mutual trust and respect?

Note that for a variety of reasons I don't want to take my issue to the person who made the recommendation, and while I can definitely set limits on duration or frequency of meetings, I still think it's important that I do go through with it. I think that means I'm mostly looking for advice on how to frame this for myself rather than any external stuff.

I've also tried to feel out from mutual contacts if that moment is representative of who he is as a person or just an anomaly (without being specific as I'm not looking to damage his reputation or anything) and not really finding many people who can offer vaguely requested commentary on his character.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you haven't had any significant professional contact with this person before, then you should put all of your previous casual impressions of them in a box and put it on a shelf in the back of your head.

Go to your first over-coffee "getting to know you" meeting -- which you should definitely frame it as -- with your new mentor with an open mind and see what they're actually like when they're engaging directly with you.

If this first meeting leaves you with a sour impression, only then go back to your recommender and say there's a personality conflict. You can't do this until you have an actual meeting.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:48 AM on April 5 [4 favorites]

I'm mostly looking for advice on how to frame this for myself rather than any external stuff.

First, ugh. Sorry that you're in this situation.

Second, I'd frame this for myself as an opportunity to work on my ability to work with people I don't like. Ideally we could all work with people we like, respect, trust, and mesh with - but the reality is that the workplace is full of people that don't fit that description.

Like @seanmpuckett said - make a mental box, put this junk in it, and shelve it. Start fresh with this person, professionally, and learn as much as you can.

Maybe, in the course of this relationship he'll exhibit this behavior in another way and you'll have an opportunity to gently rebuff it. (Or more forcefully, if that suits you.)

A colleague of mine once said something really shitty to me when I was new at my current workplace on an internally public mailing list. They were two or three rungs above me on the corporate ladder at the time. I thought it over and shot them a private email saying, basically what you said "I don't think this really reflects the culture here and I expect better." They were 1) quick to apologize to me personally, and 2) sent a note to the mailing list with a public apology.

I've gotten along with them swimmingly ever since, and respect that they did that.

You overheard someone being shitty, which may mean they are shitty, or may mean they were saying something thoughtless and stupid that if called out they might change.

Anyway - I'd say try to go in fresh and frame it as an opportunity to work on the skill of working with unpleasant people. Perhaps if you're lucky they'll change your opinion of them. If not, you might feel good about being able to set these things aside and work with them without letting your personal opinion interfere.
posted by jzb at 7:29 AM on April 5 [6 favorites]

Wait, so the person whom you heard making fatty jokes is the person you're now thinking of asking to be your mentor? You're commendably open-minded... good for you.

I guess the first thing I'd do is drop them a note telling them the c-suite person suggested they'd have some valuable insights for you re [X], and asking them for a meeting. Then see how they behave at the meeting. If they're decent, if you feel respected and fairly treated during the meeting, you can consider asking for more ongoing mentorship. If you feel uncomfortable still, you can always thank them for the one-off and not try to force more.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:05 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]

I think this is your HTFU moment. You aren't (I am guessing here) going to date him, or marry him, this is a work relationship. We all have to work with people who have (in our eyes) personalities we don't like, sometimes we can do something about it, sometimes we just have to suck it up. The advice above to have an initial meeting is sound - don't borrow trouble. Take your very best professional persona to the meeting, and be prepared to take the mentoring relationship forward unless there are solid indications you cannot work with him.

There is a 99% chance he has had the heads-up about the mentoring, so your c-suite contact will know his side of the story if you decide against this person, that means you will need your ducks in line should you have to go back and ask for another name.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:07 PM on April 5

Agreed that you should not avoid at least one meeting with this person. If it helps you as you stuff it in the mental box while you take the first meeting, one other thing might be to consider that some people can and do change, sometimes even for the better. I'm not saying he has, I'm just saying it might be a way you can mentally offer him some charity that he in no way deserves but might make you feel better going in, even if it's a no-go after you do.

As a personal anecdote, I was raised in an ultra-right-wing conservative, super beat-you-over-the-head-with-a-bible legalistic Christian, pretty much everything-phobic, very thinly veiled racist, abusive on a number of the spectra family. I had this totally warped, mis-shapen view of the world and what it means to be a kind and loving person who also stands up for themselves and takes good care of themselves. It was still that way coming out of college even. I was constantly judging everyone around me.

Metafilter, for all its quirks and faults, played an enormously central role in exposing me to Other Points Of View. It's taken years for me to look at things differently and move away from how I was programmed from a child to process and interact with the world. I've failed miserably and countless times along the way. But thanks to it's often tough (to a fault?) love, this site and the brilliant people on there have convinced me I can be a better person than the lot I got handed growing up. I voted for Obama, I chagrined at the inevitability of Trump. I fumed over Kavanaugh. I went overseas to spend half my career trying to help the less fortunate. I've created a beautiful family of choice for my son with gay uncles (guncles), athiest aunts, and just a beautiful patchwork of people.

This is long, I should stop. I guess my point is, not everybody gets to grow up with great influences. Maybe that's how this guy got to where he did thinking fat jokes are funny, let alone OK in polite society and the workplace. Maybe he got a great upbringing and something went askew. Maybe he doesn't have resources like Metafilter to help him grow up a bit. He's gotten where he has because he does have some kind of professional expertise. Maybe you just borrow what you can from him in that regard and leave the rest. And then once it's time to move on, get an even more senior and better mentor recommendation. I wish you the best.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:56 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]

I would suggest that you start by re-labelling the relationship in your own head. instead of thinking of him as a "mentor" with all of the positive, trusting connotations that go with it, think of him as a "resource person". Take advantage of what he can offer you but be thoughtful about what you share. This is one of those cases where "using people" for what you can get out of them is appropriate.

There are so many ways it could turn out: he could be bigoted but helpful or he could be dismissive and useless. Take it just far enough to see how it is going to turn out but your filters on so that his world-view isn't toxic for you.
posted by metahawk at 5:54 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]

It could offend the C-suite person not to make the initial outreach for the mentorship ... so don't do that. But if you don't end up clicking, this is the kind of that you can easily do the slow fade on.
posted by MattD at 1:18 PM on April 6

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