Networking and mentoring, while two distinct activities, both seem to endorse using people; this is bad enough, but they also, partly therefore, support the ‘It’s who you know, not what you know’ mentality. In the interest of justice based on merit, both should be discouraged.
Consider networking. On a superficial level, networking refers, harmlessly enough, to ‘making contacts.’ But networking is not so incidental, not so accidental. Networking is ‘developing and maintaining contacts.’ For what, you may ask. Good question. An article in Incentive by Steven M. and Harvey J. Krause provides the answer: “The goal of networking is to create a pool of people and information that you can use for a variety of goals: increasing the quality of your product or service, decreasing customer attrition, gaining customers or getting a job that your competition never even heard was available” (July 1995, p.71). The key word, of course, is ‘use.’ Many people think it’s wrong to use people, especially to use them as a means to your own ends—and I’m one of them.
The Krauses’ article is titled, aptly enough, “Circle of Friends: Don’t overlook the value of networking as a sales tool,” suggesting that people who network are the kind of people who call you up to tell you they’ve got a job at ABC car dealership now so hey, you need a car, dontcha? (Well, no I don’t. And if I did, I’d check the Consumer Reports.) That kind of people, I would think, quickly become ex-friends, and for good reason: no one likes to be used.
Another article, this one by Robin White Goode, focuses on networking as the way to get a job: “If you’ve developed and maintained contacts in your industry [“your own personal network of corporate insiders”], partnered with recruiters, worked with your career placement office, subscribed to professional magazines and joined key organizations, your job search is sure to be successful” (Black Enterprise, January 1995, p.76). Can you say ‘all of that costs money?’ And if you’re unemployed, you don’t have money for lunches (‘partnering with recruiters’) and subscriptions and memberships.
This strategy, obviously then, is meant for those who already have jobs, who are already on the ladder and want up (or over) a rung. That desire is not necessarily a bad thing, but networking for jobs, then, fosters a vicious cycle of ‘those who already have are apt to get more.’ This is, of course, not fair; nor is it necessary. Given our computer technology, and given the decreasing number of jobs, every job could be posted to the same one directory, and anyone looking for a job would simply need to visit the local job office to log on.
Mentoring is not as easily dismissed, if only because it’s not as easily defined. A mentor may simply be a role model: someone whose footsteps are good to follow. And/or a mentor may be a personal trainer: someone who acts as a source of information on the policies and procedures of the organization, who helps you with specific skills, who gives you feedback, etc. And/or a mentor may be a sponsor: someone who introduces you to influential people in the organization, who facilitates your entry to meetings and activities usually attended by high-level people, who publicly praises your accomplishments and abilities, who recommends you for promotion, etc. (1) Whatever the case, mentors are well-connected; they have power and prestige.
So, the bottom line is that those who have a mentor have an advantage over those who don’t. And that’s the problem. Whether trainer or sponsor, everyone could benefit from a mentor’s services. But most mentoring programs assign mentors only to a select few. Thus, mentoring legitimizes favouritism. But, you may say, the selection is based on merit—only the capable and the eager get doors opened for them, as should be the case. My response is that if merit truly mattered, people wouldn’t need others, mentors, to open those doors for them. That they do reveals that it isn’t what you know, but who you know. (And let’s not forget that mentors can close doors too—what do you do when your mentor starts ‘forgetting’ to ‘mention’ you?)
Some mentoring programs don’t function as much to fast-track the chosen ones as to affirmatively activate the heretofore unchosen ones. But this just compensates for an unfair system; it doesn’t make it less unfair.
Both kinds of mentoring are, however, exclusionary, and, as I’ve said, that’s the problem. As for a mentor providing inside information, well, there shouldn’t be any inside information: an organization’s policies and procedures should be written out for all to read, perhaps even presented at a new employee training session (and there should be no unwritten policies, no under-the-table procedures); any preferences for application materials, be it for a job, a promotion, or a grant, should be stated on the application form itself, or perhaps explained in a separate ‘Tips for Applicants’ sheet; and, as suggested earlier, knowledge of any available job, promotion, or grant, should be freely accessible to all.
As for a mentor opening doors, well, merit should be the only key. Am I suggesting that people can’t even ‘put in a good word’—am I suggesting the demise of recommendations? Part of me wants to say, yes: my abilities and credentials should speak for themselves, what someone else says about me shouldn’t matter. But we live in a world where people can hire someone to prepare their resume, where businesses exist solely for the purpose of writing grant applications. In light of such rampant spin doctoring, perhaps employers and adjudicators need to be able to speak directly to someone who has actually known and worked with the applicant. So, let’s keep recommendations but only as one of several criteria for judgement, and let’s use them most judiciously: people (especially people with power) should not give recommendations unsolicited; employees should solicit recommendations only from those people named by the applicant; and the prestige of the recommender should not matter—there are a lot of good people out there who simply aren’t ‘well connected.’
In many ways, both networking and mentoring are nothing new—they’re the ‘old boys’ club’ all over again. Sure the club may include non-male and non-white people now; it may even be a club you’ve made yourself. But the question at the starting line is still the same: ‘What can you do for me?’ (because I can’t do it for myself) (because I’m deficient and/or the system is defective).
(1) These descriptions are taken, roughly, from Margo Murray’s Beyond the Myths and Magic of Mentoring: How to Facilitate an EffectiveMentoring Program (San Francisco: Jossey-Boss Publishers, 1991, p.12-13).