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First Do No Harm

Good intentions are not enough to ensure that mentors will build helpful, not harmful, relationships with their mentees.

Potential for Harm

Many well-intentioned mentors begin mentoring with heightened expectations of the experience. Advertisements for programs and program staff who recruit mentors highlight the joys of mentoring that fuel these expectations. However, most of these ads and conversations fail to discuss the everyday challenges of taking on the role of mentor.


Mentors often start mentoring with a desire to make a difference. The ethical implications involved can be difficult to navigate. Mentors are at risk of emotional harm when their mentors let them down by:

  • Failing to set appropriate boundaries
  • Failing to respect and embrace their cultural differences
  • Failing to maintain their confidence
  • Setting unrealistic expectations
  • Terminating the relationship with little or no warning

Youth often grow close with their mentors. When this happens, they may feel rejected or betrayed when problems arise. These feelings may lead to hurt feelings and adverse outcomes for mentees.

Other Adult Relationships

Despite the potential for negative outcomes if mentoring relationships fail or encourage difficulties, mentors rarely receive training in how to ethically serve their mentees. However, individuals in helping relationships receive training on ethical principles developed by the American Psychological Association. These principles help them navigate the relationships. The goal of this training is to adapt these ethical principles for mentors so that mentees are best supported in these relationships. Here, we describe the similarities with counselors or psychologists.

Mentoring and counseling share certain parallels. For example:

  • Both occur outside the recipient’s network of family, friends, and neighbors. 
  • Both involve an inherent power differential.
  • Both involve scheduled “sessions” or meetings.

The most important parallel is that both aim to foster the strengths of the individual receiving support. The empathetic bond between the counselor or mentor often results in these positive changes (Spencer & Rhodes, 2005). Counselors must follow the APA’s ethics code. Mentors should also follow a code of ethics for supporting their mentees.

Training is Critical

Counselors receive valuable training that helps them navigate tricky relationships with the people they are supporting. As a mentor, you should continue your training too. Throughout the rest of this course, you’ll learn the five ethical principles to follow as a mentor and you’ll be asked to think critically about a few case examples.