Some work situations are a little more challenging than others. Mentoring an employee of the opposite sex is one of those situations. Why is that?

At the most basic level, it’s because people at work notice when colleagues of the opposite sex start spending more time together in and out of the office and naturally wonder if the change in behavior is of a professional or personal nature. This situation can also pose a challenge if one of the people involved in the mentoring relationship sends or receives mixed signals. A recent study has shown that as many as two-thirds of men in senior positions expressed reluctance to mentor junior female employees for fear that the one-on-one contact would be mistaken for an affair. On the other side of the equation, half of junior women reported feeling the same about the one-on-one contact with an older male mentor.

The professional upside of a successful mentoring relationship can easily offset the potential negatives so here are a few tips to keep that relationship on solid professional footing.

Tips for Mentors and Mentees
1. Start with a Group: it can be helpful to start the mentoring relationship with a third party present or with a group of mentees of both men and women. The extra presence helps to establish the professional nature of the mentoring relationship. Use this session to outline the goals and objectives for the relationship and establish a communication environment that is comfortable for both the mentor and mentee.
2. Keep Regular Meetings: establish regular meetings at regular times. When mentor and mentee are meeting on a recurrent basis it’s more difficult for co-workers to get the wrong idea.
3. Meet in a Public Place: conducting your meetings at a crowded coffee shop, in a conference room with the door open or in the company dining room will keep the relationship visible and demonstrate that neither mentor nor mentee are trying to hide anything. Avoid meeting after-hours at work when no one else is present. And skip the late evening dinner at a fancy restaurant which can feel more like a company-sponsored date then a working meeting.
4. Talk About Family: for both mentor and mentee, mentioning significant others, children or commitments to co-workers lets others know you have a life outside of work and that you are not looking to fill a void with a work relationship.
5. Introduce Significant Others: if there is a company-sponsored event and significant others are invited bring yours along and introduce him or her to co-workers. Publically demonstrating your commitment to your significant other in front of your co-workers makes it less likely for them to view your mentor-mentee relationship with suspicion.
6. Maintain Your Professional Demeanor: it’s important to set a solid foundation for the professional nature of the time you are spending together. Keep the conversation focused on work. Avoid inappropriate jokes or off-color remarks or innuendos. Personal questions or remarks early on in the relationship can set the wrong tone and are best avoided.
7. Give It Time: it is natural for a mentor and mentee to develop a friendship over time; however, it’s important to put the professional relationship first. At the beginning of the relationship avoid mixing your new work relationship with your personal life. Invitations to personal parties and nights out should wait until the professional part of the relationship has been firmly established and matured.
8. Dress Professionally: when meeting with your mentor or mentee, dress professionally and if there is any doubt, err on the side being conservative. Something as simple as a skirt that is a little short while seated can make both parties uncomfortable. Think about what you wear and make sure that you, rather than your clothes, are the focal point.