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How Reverse Mentoring Can Eliminate Ageism In The Workplace

Jim Falteisek (Senior Vice President, Asia Corporate Affairs) and Hetty Sabater (HR People Relations Partner) from 3M address ageism stereotypes at the workplace.

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

By Jim Falteisek and Hetty Sabater

We are familiar with the concept of mentoring. Typically, a more senior employee is tasked with guiding a junior colleague. But what if we told you it could be the other way around? 

Gone are the days that seniority means superiority. The world is increasingly fast-paced today, and more and more millennials are joining the workplace. 

There are approximately 1.1 billion millennials in Asia. In Malaysia, there are 9.5 million young workers.

Typically characterized as flexible, adaptable, and tech-savvy, millennials offer much to the workforce, and older generations indeed have a lot to learn from the young. 

More companies, like 3M, are therefore pairing their senior leaders with younger mentors in this concept called reverse mentoring. There are several benefits, including imparting critical perspectives on strategic thinking, leadership, mindsets, and values in the workplace. They also provide leaders an insight into the minds of the younger generation, allowing leaders to better understand their values, priorities and motivations, how they wish to be treated, and how to optimize their talents to enhance engagement and retention, ultimately building bridges between generations. It allows us to confront ageism in the workplace head-on – by getting both younger and older generations to share their perspectives, foster better understanding, and dispel myths.  

How leader mentees benefit: Bridging generational gaps 

With COVID-19 accelerating the digitization of work, being paired with a younger colleague has been helpful in navigating the new era of digital communications, especially in the world of remote work.

One of the first things my younger mentor, Hetty, taught me was how the younger generation perceives digital communication and social media. I had the opportunity to witness the rise of social media and at first, I did not understand that social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram were perceived as a personal space. It was through Hetty’s sharing that I was able to understand this concept and look at it from a different perspective.  

This then motivated me to develop a Yammer group for 3M employees in Asia, a professional social networking tool that helps build community at 3M. With Hetty guiding me through the entire process, Yammer has been a very helpful tool to engage, post questions or share information with coworkers, and collaborate with different teams, especially during COVID-19. 
One of the leadership principles I’ve stuck to is the importance of communicating thanks and recognizing my colleagues. To my surprise, Hetty shared that her generation appreciates informal recognition and shoutouts through digital tools such as email. As someone who comes from a generation where personal handwritten cards were the norm, this was a bit shocking to me. I was worried that it seemed quite informal and even insincere, but Hetty explained that the younger generation does not perceive it that way. 

These days, I find myself sending out more ‘thank you’ notes to my colleagues because it’s simply much more efficient than handwriting cards. This helped create a great camaraderie among team members and bring our culture to life.

How young mentors benefit: two-way mentoring 

On the flip side, as COVID-19 necessitated remote work, having a leader mentee is critical in helping younger employees, especially fresh entrants, make sense of the changes and anchor perspectives in the new world of work. 

Beyond the typical wealth of experience younger mentors may gain from their seniors, reverse mentoring revolutionizes the traditional model of mentoring. It enables two-way communication and allows for a more conversational approach. Through this channel, younger employees can share their insights, and be heard. 

Besides boosting morale and productivity, reverse mentoring even allows younger employees to influence higher-level company decisions. During our regular meetings, Hetty shared her work in launching several employee resource networks in the Philippines. I was able to utilize these learnings from the ground to further enhance targeted inclusion strategies and actions for 2021, which I am currently implementing. 

How corporates can do it right

To maximize success, here are some things companies need to consider.

First, from the start, all young mentors and leader mentees must have clear motivations laid out. Before joining, participating employees must think about why they want to participate.  

Next, they must set clear learning goals to ensure the program is fruitful for them. 

Third, they must set clear boundaries between work and personal topics and align on a shared commitment towards the program. 

Lastly, both young mentors and leader mentees should stick to their assigned roles. Senior executives should refrain from going back to ‘leadership mode’, while younger employees should continue to be ‘teachers’ to their mentees.   

Regular dialogues and sharing sheds light on ageism in the workplace. Stereotypes are just what they are – misconceptions. Juniors are not too young to lead or teach, and seniors are not too old to learn new skills. 

Today, nearly 300 3M employees in Asia are participating in the Reverse Mentoring program, an important contributor to making 3M a diverse, inclusive, and empowering workplace for all.

Jim Falteisek is the Senior Vice President of Asia Corporate Affairs at 3M and Hetty Sabater is the HR People Relations Partner at 3M

1 MSCI: Millennials
2  Commentary: Malaysia’s youth face some of the bleakest economic prospects 

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