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First conversations can be awkward. But when a chat has been arranged with someone at work to talk about sexual orientation, where do you begin?

"We don't start by asking the tougher questions," says Tim Piggott, a partner in Ernst & Young's Transaction Advisory Services in Toronto, and a mentee in the firm's Just Ask program.

As part of the program, Mr. Piggott was matched with a LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) mentor. "We started with questions like, 'What's your family like? Do you have brothers and sisters? Do you have a cat?'"

Traditionally, mentoring programs match a more experienced mentor with a less experienced mentee. In reverse mentoring, however, it's the exact opposite. For example, now in its second year, Ernst & Young's Just Ask program matches Generation X and Y, and LGBT individuals, with more senior staff. The mentor and mentee spend time together addressing differences and building bridges.

What surprises most is they are more alike than they realize. "Except for the one LGBT issue that brought us together, we have very similar core values in terms of family and our careers," says Mr. Piggott. "In my mentor, I saw a bit of a younger version of myself. He's an individual who's driven by his career, who likes to make friends and have fun, and who respects others."

Norma Tombari, RBC's Director of Global Diversity, agrees that mentoring creates personal learning and an understanding of diversity and inclusion. She's in charge of RBC's Diversity Dialogues, a reciprocal mentoring program established in 2006. It matches mid-level females and visible minorities with mentors in more senior positions, but then goes one step further to include reverse mentoring. The two individuals mentor each other over a 12 month period. The company has had almost 500 people involved to date right across Canada and plans to bring another 500 onboard.

"The first thing you do is you build the relationship and get to know each other," says Ms. Tombari. "You share your backgrounds, experiences and career aspirations. We provide some tools that help kickstart the dialogue by giving topics and questions to discuss."

The Diversity Dialogues toolkit typically includes some facts or background on a topic along with a series of open ended questions, so people can think back on their experiences and reflect, explains Ms. Tombari. It's less about personal experiences, although that's part of it, but also what people observe in the workplace or in client interaction in the community.

"The questions also ask people to explore their unconscious bias," says Ms. Tombari. "You explore, dialogue and you read. It's about continuous learning and being open to discussion. You start off not necessarily knowing what you don't know. It's all about valuing one another."

After meeting multiple times, Mr. Piggott found the relationship naturally evolved and he and his mentor have continued a friendship now that their 12 months in the Just Ask program is over.

"We talk about many things in all aspects of our lives, professional and personal," says Mr. Piggott. "The program has led both my mentor and me to be more comfortable at work. I certainly thought I was open before but it gave me a whole new perspective. My perspective now is to never prejudge."

Unlike RBC's more structured Diversity Dialogues program, the Just Ask program at Ernst & Young has no toolkit or guidelines other than for the participants to meet regularly and get to know each other in a way that felt comfortable.

"The theory was, we wanted to make this as real life as possible, so we felt it would be most productive not to have guidelines, other than ethical ones," says Mr. Piggott. "Typically we just go out for coffee or lunch. It's really centred around conversation. Even a 10-minute phone call can be effective. We thought that by keeping it light, that would drive the most free flowing conversation for my mentor and me."

Ms. Tombari advises that a program like Diversity Dialogues is well worth doing. She's observed a huge increase in employee activity and engagement around diversity issues in the workplace and community because of it.

"Many individuals go on to become diversity ambassadors, coaching others, so it has a ripple effect," says Ms. Tombari. "It's important that it's embedded in the culture. When you have role models plus visibility and discussion that happen on the senior leadership level, it creates an open atmosphere where everyone can be comfortable."