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Would-be Mentors: Don’t Be Creepy. Would-be Proteges: Avoid Being Only The Protege of Any Individual Mentor

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Responding to the discussion of experiencing sexual harassment by Hannah Waters and Monica Byrne, Laura Helmuth makes a couple good points:

Before this week, the word I often heard people use to describe Zivkovic was mentor. And the mentor-mentee relationship is one of the most fraught of adulthood. We glibly advise people starting out in business to find a mentor, to identify a successful, established, generous person in your field and somehow get her to help you become her.

This is terrible advice. It perpetuates old-boy networks, wastes time that early career people could spend actually doing their work, and tells them they are only as good as their contacts and charm. Young people, don’t look for a mentor. Listen to and learn from people who have more experience, but don’t hitch your wagon to their star. Just do your job well.

Now, you established people, listen up. You will occasionally meet younger people who go out of their way to speak with you at professional events, ask you interesting and sometimes personal questions, and hang on your every word. Those are not puppy-dog, crushed-out eyes staring up at you. These are eyes hungry for a professional break. These people are not trying to sleep with you. They are trying to get hired by you.

’m an editor, which means I have a certain amount of power because I assign stories to freelance writers. Several years ago I noticed that handsome young male freelancers tended to gather around me at journalism conferences and laugh at all my jokes. And I’m not that funny.

It can be hard to tell the difference between flirtation and exuberance. The men and the women who approach me are doing exactly what they should do at a professional meeting: introducing themselves, expressing enthusiasm for what I do, asking questions, making clever conversation. They are looking for guidance, not lechery. It’s my job to interpret their behavior correctly. (The gender roles are usually reversed, which often adds to the problem, but plenty of men, including a dear younger friend of mine, have been harassed by women.)

If you are established in your career and in a position to help others, congratulations. Be as generous as you can be, and while you’re at it, remember to thank the people who helped you. But recognize that you have a tremendous responsibility to take your mentees seriously. It’s easy to forget how insecure and uninformed someone can be starting out, and it’s hard to remember that you have a lot of power in comparison, even if you have just a few years more experience or feel like a cog yourself. Be respectful, be appropriate, be professional. Above all else, do not be a creep.

Professionalism is the responsibility of people with power, and it’s generally not hard to figure out what’s appropriate behavior and what’s not. The Byrne and Waters posts convey this very effectively.

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