Considering Cross-Generational Mentoring to Tackle Workplace Bullying: Part 1

January is National Mentoring Month (, so each Friday this month, we’ll explore different aspects of mentoring and how this form of training can benefit your organization. Today, we hear from mentoring experts, Beth N. Carvin and Kerrie Main, in an article they wrote that first appeared on®.

“My boss is picking on me” is a commonly heard phrase by employees around the world. Does it constitute workplace bullying? Maybe, if “picking on me” means that the manager has yelled at the employee in front of his or her colleagues for the past month in staff meetings. Maybe not, if “picking on me” means that the manager asked the employee to work late to correctly complete customer work orders the employee has done erroneously for the entire quarter despite coaching efforts.

The Society for Human Resource Management defines “workplace bullying” as “Repeated inappropriate behavior, either direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment.”

Other HR resources place workplace bullying on a wide spectrum, from more “minor” offenses, like spreading fictional gossip and excluding someone socially, to more serious charges of physical abuse and yelling. The “gray” bullying areas include complaints about constantly changing work guidelines, unrelenting criticism, undermining a person’s work, and assigning unreasonable duties to set an employee up to fail.

The hard truth is that bullying, in and out of the workplace, is subjective. Some behaviors have malicious intentions, while in other cases, they are meant to be constructive criticism. What can be agreed on is that the younger generation of workers, the Millennials, typically has much lower tolerance levels for bullying (and the perception of bullying) likely due to being raised in educational systems with “zero-tolerance” policies.

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Mentoring Can Help

In an effort to prevent inundating HR departments with workplace bullying claims, forward-thinking organizations have implemented mentoring programs that partner more junior employees with senior employees. Cross-generational mentorships are especially beneficial for Millennials, who seek the opportunity to learn from and work with senior team members.

The benefits of these types of mentorships include keeping young employees committed to the organization, career development, future promotions, and increased visibility in the organization.

Cross-generational mentorships can also help with workplace bullying issues in that they can help junior employees improve communication with colleagues and senior leaders, an area that is connected to many bullying incidents. Furthermore, mentorships give junior employees a “sounding board” in their mentors—someone they can talk to about sensitive issues who will give them candid advice and feedback about a particular situation.

Because bullying is often open to interpretation and the personalities and history of those involved are significant factors, mentors can help determine if it is indeed bullying and provide guidance on how to handle the situation.

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When it IS bullying. Millennials who experience true bullying have an invaluable resource in their mentors. Most mentors will have “been there, done that” in their careers, so they bring a unique perspective to the situation.

Mentors can give seasoned advice about what to do in the situation, such as reporting it to their manager or HR, role playing a conversation with the “bully,” or advising the mentee to start documenting quantifiable offenses.

When it’s NOT bullying. Sometimes it’s not bullying. It’s just a boss giving a harsh critique in a direct manner or a group of catty coworkers who don’t want to invite someone to happy hour. While these types of situations may bruise a young employee’s ego, they are typically not workplace bullying.

Mentors can help point out the difference and coach the Millennial employee through a challenging situation that he or she can learn from. That’s one of the jobs of the mentor—to give honest advice, even when it’s difficult to hear “Get over it.” That same advice can help prevent a mentee from making the situation worse by blowing it out of proportion and further alienating his or her coworkers or manager.

Beth N. Carvin is president and CEO of Nobscot Corp., whose Mentor Scout division ( provides Web-based software for large companies and association mentoring programs. Kerrie Main is Nobscot’s communications manager. Carvin can be reached at, and Main can be reached at

In next Friday’s Advisor, we’ll give Carvin and Main’s top tips for an effective mentoring program.