What a Difference a Mentor Makes


It's always comforting when someone offers to help you out in a new job by providing training and support. Whether this person is your official mentor or is simply designated to show you the ropes, he is filling a vital role, particularly if you're a new worker with a disability.

Because a new worker with a disability already has some concerns and fears not experienced by the usual new employee, being assigned a job mentor is a real support. Such fears can lead workers to ask: Will they accept me as a person, not as a person with a handicap? What funny ideas do they have about my disability? Can I really handle the job responsibilities?

Management may use the term "job coach," but a mentor has a very different meaning to both the individual with the disability and coworkers.

What Is a Mentor?

A mentor is a person who commands a certain degree of respect, either by virtue of holding a higher-level position, or because of age or experience doing the job. "Mentor" is also a term that is used in life, not just in work. It refers to someone who takes a special interest in a person, and in teaching that person skills and attitudes to help him succeed.

What Does a Mentor Do?

A mentor's responsibilities at a work site are varied. In Facing the Future: Best Practices in Supported Employment, Dale DiLeo says mentors provide:

  • Orientation to the workplace.
  • Job training.
  • Job performance reviews.
  • Emotional support.
  • Insight on social expectations.
  • Advice on negotiating problematic coworker relationships.
  • Reciprocal relationships.
  • Tips on time management.
  • Assistance in developing support networks.

A mentor may not do all of these things, and they may not all be necessary.

When a Mentor Really Helps

There are two ways in which a mentor can be especially supportive:

  • Helping the new employee learn the skills and develop the confidence to perform the job well
  • Orienting the new employee to the office culture

Knowing the culture is almost as important as doing the job well, because job satisfaction comes not only from good performance evaluations but also from feeling that a person fits in, has friends at work and can be himself. A worker with disabilities may come in at a real disadvantage due to less developed relationship-building skills and stigma. A mentor helps bridge the gap. When a trusting relationship develops, the mentor can often give candid feedback about how the worker is perceived by other workers and support the worker in improving relationships.

Some workplaces have mentor-training programs, especially if they employ many workers with disabilities or hire people with certain kinds of disabilities. Mentors often know intuitively how to help -- by listening, encouraging, helping with reality testing, instructing and helping with the integration of the new person into the life of the organization. But training programs can provide specialized information. Workers who have traumatic brain injuries or developmental disabilities, for example, often have unique learning styles that mentors can be taught to understand and teach to.

Businesses Benefit from Mentors, Too

Businesses and organizations that take the time and the care to assign mentors to new workers with disabilities, and that are committed to facilitating this process, will find the payoffs are huge. The new worker benefits in many ways: by learning the job skills, having help in meeting and beginning relationships with coworkers and especially by feeling that management cares about helping him or her succeed. The mentor has extra responsibilities, but also has the opportunity to bring someone along who might otherwise "get lost." Other workers see that the company puts a value on helping people who have special difficulties or situations. They may decide they would like to become mentors as well. It's a win/win!

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