MenTABOOS: Are there any topics that are off the table for mentors and mentees?

Businessman Harassing Female Colleague

Meeting with a mentor can be intimidating, especially the first time. Hopefully your program has given you clear expectations about topics of discussion and benchmarks for each meeting. But you might still be nervous about the actual conversation. Work environments typically don’t put people at ease and any smart employee knows that they should choose their words carefully in professional scenarios.

Here’s what to avoid to ensure that your mentor remains your professional adviser instead of your obligatory frenemy:

  • Religion/Politics– you probably could have guessed this. Maybe because you’ve been on the other side of an unwanted conversation like this in the break room. It’s actually a good idea to discuss personal topics with your mentor, so that you can build a great foundation. But you should avoid topics that might make your mentor uncomfortable or isolate yourself. Politics and religion tend to divide people, especially between generations, and inevitably allow people to make assumptions about each other that only further that divide.
  • The Other Kind of Politics– When you lean across the management aisle, it’s easy for your curiosity to get the best of you. Your mentor likely has insider information whether through direct inclusion in upper level decisions or through experience with the company. Be conscientious about not putting your mentor in a position where he or she might be concerned about spilling sensitive information or overstepping confidentiality
  • Complaints-There’s nothing wrong with expressing your frustration with the challenging parts of your job. But make sure you’re not using the time with your mentor to vent. Instead, consider the issues that are troubling you before the meeting and present them as questions. Be solution-minded and your mentor will be able to give you advice instead of just acting as your punching bag. Save that for your friend or significant other!
  • Early Favors– One day your mentor could sponsor your promotion, write you a recommendation, or even hire you for a new job. But if you ask them to speak on your behalf or stick out his or her neck for you too early, you’ll risk the future of your relationship. If you’re unsure if it’s too soon or not, ask them how they would feel about the favor, and explain that you understand if they feel uncomfortable or need to think about the decision.


Overall, the best thing you can do is to be open and clear. Put yourself in your mentor’s shoes and approach him or her with kindness.  If you find yourself on the receiving end of any of these taboo topics and you’re too nervous to speak to your mentor directly, ask your human resources contact to speak to your mentor about improving your meetings.

Kate Mason

Kate Mason is a writer, historian, and stand-up comic living in New Orleans, LA. She is the Programming Coordinator for the New Orleans Film Society and an avid enthusiast of pop culture. She approaches mentoring challenges with a witty, creative mind.

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