From Small Conversations to Building an Inclusive Workplace

In 2020, events involving racial injustice in the USA meant that for the first time, deep and candid conversations around diversity and inclusion were happening within the USTA. However, there was still some reluctance and discomfort around how to openly and respectfully discuss these topics in the workplace without fear of judgment or saying the wrong thing. 

In light of this, the USTA Diversity & Inclusion team saw that a mentoring program could play a pivotal role in creating greater understanding and awareness of different cultural backgrounds while providing a safe environment for employees to learn about and share their experiences. This initiative would allow them to provide an avenue for employees of different backgrounds in different areas of the organisation, who normally would not have the chance to interact, to connect.

Testing the Waters

The program coordinators wanted to launch a pilot program to test how a peer mentoring initiative centered on diversity and inclusion would work and how it would be received in the organisation. 

To understand this, the program coordinators sought answers to these questions:

It was also important for the program coordinators that there was real diversity in the program – not just in terms of ethnicity and gender, but also in age, seniority, departments, etc. They were also very conscious of wanting this program to be a true peer mentoring program where participants learn from each other, instead of the traditional setup. Mentorloop’s value system aligned with their goals and plans were drawn.

Launching a Successful Pilot

As this was the first time a D&I focused mentoring program was being offered in the USTA, there were employees who understandably weren’t sure that the program would be an opportunity for them to navigate D&I in a way that is non-judgmental, or that there wouldn’t be any professional consequences for anything that might be asked or said. 

However, with senior management 100% behind the initiative this was eased – some even putting their hand up to participate as well. 

The program coordinators also dealt with this hesitancy by diligently answering any questions, and ensuring the program wasn’t compulsory – participants didn’t need to join if they didn’t feel 100% inclined to. This ensured all participants were able to be comfortable, engaged, and fully committed to having a productive relationship with their mentoring partners. They felt this was pivotal in how the program went on to being felt as meaningful.

A program overview that included what to expect and the program’s objectives were sent out by the PCs. They also hosted a kick-off launch call with all the participants that was also attended by senior management and a Mentorloop representative. Content was created to structure and guide the participants’ discussions around certain D&I topics. Every few weeks, participants received email nudges prompting them to read or watch content exploring topics such as identity, allyship, and empathy, and then discuss their thoughts with their peer mentor. 

Marilyn Sherman
Marilyn Sherman
National Promotions Manager
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I think the secret to a good mentoring relationship is getting to know each other on a personal level. Mentoring has changed my perspective, not only professionally but also personally! It’s what it’s all about! If you're new to mentoring, just give it a shot1 You won't be disappointed!
Andrea Snead
Director Diversity and Inclusion
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Going into the program, I hoped to connect and learn from someone that is potentially different from me. One way that mentoring has changed my professional life is that it has eliminated the barriers that exist when you are a new employee. I would like for those who are new to mentoring to consider being vulnerable and authentic because you can walk away with a broader viewpoint than when you came in. Who knows, you may leave with a new friend as well!

Results and Feedback

The intentional approach towards a diverse, peer mentoring program, paid off. In some cases, the more junior participants even took on a more active mentoring role.

Participants went on to share with the PCs, “I’ve always wondered about X” or “I’ve always wanted to ask about X” but had never felt that they could have these conversations out of fear of offending somebody. This initiative has given them a safe space to do that and educate themselves about the experiences of people who have had different lived experiences.

There were many powerful stories from the program – all of them highlighting the great impact that providing people with a personal avenue to educate themselves has made.

Overall, the feedback from the pilot has been overwhelmingly positive. Across the board, participants have shared that they have opened themselves to different perspectives and are now having productive conversations that they would never have had before. 

USTA employees who were not part of this program have also mentioned to the program coordinators how happy they were to see senior leaders not only support such an initiative but also participate. To them, it demonstrated that the USTA was serious about improving the culture at the USTA.

Despite the pilot being a small part of a larger D&I strategy, it has already begun reinforcing some of the other training and educational programs at the USTA. Participants from the mentoring program are now showing more interest in attending the many other D&I education programs and training sessions on offer and are encouraging their teams to do the same. Many of them have become advocates for the mentoring program, USTA’s D&I initiatives, and more importantly, for more inclusion in general. 

Finding Resolution to Past Mistakes
A standout story from the program is from a participant who made the mistake of misgendering an employee. At the time, as embarrassed as he was, he didn’t know what to do in the moment or how to make it right.
Through this program, he was able to find an opportunity to educate himself about how to navigate these situations in a way that makes sure everyone is comfortable. Additionally, he felt that his mentoring relationship allowed him to have a space that was open and non-judgmental, ensuring that he wouldn’t have to worry about offending somebody or being shamed while educating himself on certain issues.
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Unlikely Pair Forge A Lasting Connection
One match that stood out to the Program Coordinators involved peer mentors with polar opposite backgrounds - they were of different genders, races, nationalities, and sexual orientations. However, they built a bond around seeking to understand and learn from one another.
Both of them came to the coordinators several times throughout the program, separately and together, to express how much this experience had made a positive impact on both of them. One of the peer mentors came into the partnership aware that he didn’t know a lot about these topics and his mentoring partner came into the relationship open to meeting him where he was with no judgment. This allowed them both to learn from each other and forge a fantastic, lasting relationship - one that likely would not have happened without this program.
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The Program Coordinators also joined the program and were pleasantly surprised at just how much they were also able to learn from their mentoring matches.
Working in Diversity & Inclusion, the Program Coordinators are always focused on helping educate other people that self-reflection sometimes gets forgotten despite how important it is. This gave them an opportunity to do that.
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Future Plans

Now that the pilot has ended with such a positive reception and overwhelmingly positive feedback, the program coordinators plan to scale it more broadly across the USTA. 

They are hopeful that through reports of positive experiences from the pilot, management support, and proof that there were no professional consequences to talking about D&I in the workplace, more people would be interested in joining the program. 

They are now looking at improving their matching questionnaire to ensure they make quality matches even with a bigger cohort. They’re also looking into more ways they can use the data from Mentorloop to make sure they can keep track of how relationships are going for a bigger group of people.

Another opportunity that the program coordinators want to explore is maximising mentoring relationships by using them for the participants’ professional growth and development as well. 

As they continue to move the needle on things like anti-racism and start conversations about privilege, the program coordinators’ vision is to see the culture at the USTA evolve and the relationships formed through this program continue to flourish. They are hoping that from this small nugget of an idea to start connecting people from different backgrounds, the whole organisational culture at the USTA can become a shining example of what can happen when a workplace genuinely cares about being a truly diverse and inclusive environment.