What is informal mentoring in the workplace?

It may not be clear whether to encourage informal mentoring in the workplace or to start a formal mentorship program. Here's how to decide.

Ryan Carruthers

Published on 

March 28, 2022

Updated on 

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You know the benefits of mentoring in the workplace. People with mentors are more confident, have more support, and generally grow their careers faster. Having a role model to rely on as you navigate a career in the 21st century is crucial. That’s why over 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies have workplace mentoring programs.

But when you’re in HR and you’re considering mentorship’s place in your organization, should you let it happen on its own or make mentorship a formal initiative? 

Each has its merits. You don’t want to force a mentoring relationship that won’t work, but you also want to ensure every employee has the opportunity to find a mentor. 

It’s a tough spot. This article will help you navigate the answer. And at the end, we’ll give you some tips on how to make the transition from informal to formal mentoring at your organization.

What is informal mentoring?

Informal mentoring refers to those supportive relationships you’ll develop outside of organized programs or activities in your workplace.  These can be individuals you meet through your network that help guide you or offer you career advice. 

Sometimes these relationships develop unintentionally, and other times, it is intentional. For example, a new hire may seek out a mentor in a more senior employee to help them learn the ropes. They may also hope to model their career path to their mentor who is higher up in the company. 

Neither of them may label themselves as a mentor or mentee, but if you asked them they’d probably describe their relationship as something close to mentorship. They may say,

  • “I can go to them with whatever challenges I’m facing and they always seem to know what to say.”
  • “I can trust their advice. They’re much further along in their career and most things I’ve faced, they’ve been through already.”

If you heard someone talk about their coach, manager, or leader this way you’d probably agree that they fit the description of a mentor. 

But when does informal mentoring become formal mentoring? What’s the difference between the two?

Informal vs formal mentoring programs

There are many differences between informal mentoring relationships and formal mentoring programs. Each has its own merits. Here are a few of the benefits of both informal and formal mentoring. 

Benefits of informal mentoring

  • A mentee can find a mentor outside of their organization, opening up the possibilities of who can be a mentor.
  • Relationships can feel more natural as they develop more like other relationships or friendships. 
  • The purpose of mentoring can change over time, which means informal mentoring is more flexible. 
  • No waiting period. If a mentee finds a mentor they want to work with, it can begin immediately. 
  • The mentor can help guide mentees in any area of their life as the mentorship is not work-specific. 
  • No time limit. An informal mentoring relationship can last longer than a formal mentoring program with a specific start and end date. 

Benefits of formal mentoring programs

  • Organizations can provide structure to the programs, providing a similar experience for everyone. 
  • Ensure all employees have the opportunity to find a mentor, not just those who are more extroverted and have larger networks to draw on. 
  • Mentoring programs can be tied to business objectives, not just driven by what a mentee wants. This means the mentoring program can have benefits for participants and the organization. 
  • It can be monitored and tracked, which means the managers can use participants' feedback to improve the program. 
  • Formal mentoring programs are great for remote or hybrid workplaces. Some employees may never meet their colleagues in person. This can make forming relationships difficult. Mentoring can match employees who would otherwise never connect.
  • A time limit of formal mentoring can help participants be more focused during the mentorship. 

Whether you use a formal mentor program or encourage employees to look for a mentor informally, both still hold many benefits. And it’s important to know that you can transition to a formal program even if you’ve let mentoring happen informally.

Examples of informal mentoring

Informal mentoring can happen all around your workplace without participants realizing they are in a mentorship. Here are some examples of informal mentoring. 

A manager who shows a genuine interest in your growth and development

When a manager takes an employee under their wing and offers advice for growth and development opportunities, it is informal mentoring. Managers can also recommend employees for training opportunities to help facilitate their development. 

A leader who takes you under their wing

Sometimes someone in the company leadership comes alongside you and helps guide your career, offering your advice, support, and encouragement. This is another example of informal mentoring. Some leaders may even advocate for you if there is job vacancy you’re interested in. 

A coworker who coaches you and gives you peer feedback

Peer mentoring is just as valuable as other forms of mentoring and it can be as simple as asking a coworker for some advice. If a peer has more experience or seniority, they may also help coach you to do better or achieve your goals. 

Engaging in professional forums or communities to ask questions and participating in discussions

If you get involved in professional forums or communities and participate in discussions, informal group mentoring can be considered. These interactions can be engaging, insightful, and great learning experiences. 

Disadvantages of relying on informal mentoring 

There are some drawbacks to relying on informal mentoring for your organization. They include: 

Not all employees will find mentors

Unfortunately, while many people acknowledge the importance of mentors, less than 40 percent actually have one. It can be challenging to find a mentor if there is a lack of formal mentoring offered in a workplace. Moreover, introverted employees can find the process of approaching a potential mentor intimidating. 

Potential mentors are limited to people they know 

Mentors who have a desire to give back may not be able to find a mentee because their connections are limited. 

Mentoring relationships won’t have support from administrators

Mentoring relationships benefit from some guidance and support. It can be difficult to move mentorships forward without providing resources for participants to use. With mentoring software like Together, you’ll have resources like handbooks, mentor training, and discussion topics

Wendy Axelrod, author of 10 Steps to Successful Mentoring, shares in her interview with Together's CEO why relying on informal mentoring can limit its impact. See her full interview here.

Keeping track of results is harder

Knowing how successful your workplace mentoring program is can be vital information. Yet, with informal mentoring there is no ongoing monitoring. No one will be measuring or reporting on the program. And you won’t know forsure if the program is actually helping employees. This makes building a business case for mentoring harder.

Organizations can build different kinds of mentoring programs

You’re not limited to a one-on-one mentoring program with formal mentorships. Rather, you can build a variety of mentoring programs to attract and assist various employees. Consider different mentoring program structures like peer-to-peer, reverse or flash mentoring programs. 

Start a formal mentoring program with Together

Even if you already have an informal mentoring program at your workplace, there are many excellent reasons to transition to a formal mentoring program. With our mentoring software, you can easily build a robust and effective formal mentoring program. 

From a simplified registration and matching process to guidance and support for participants to  integrations and stellar customer service, Together will lead your program administrators through the entire process. We’ve also included a customizable reporting feature that allows you to gauge the success of your mentoring program. 

If you’re ready to start your formal mentoring program, contact Together for a free demo and find out how easy it is. 

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