Mentoring for Adjudicators: The Need for Guidelines

There is no perfect training for any occupation. Guidance from more experienced people is always necessary when developing a new career. This is particularly so for new adjudicators. Training on how to run a hearing is commonly offered to new adjudicators. Even with simulations, that training does not equip adjudicators with everything they need to survive (or, better yet, thrive) in adjudicating.

Mentorship is ideally suited for the development of new adjudicators. A mentor is a more experienced adjudicator who shares his or her perspective with a less experienced adjudicator. Mentor was an Ithacan noble in Homer’s Odyssey. A trusted adviser to Ulysses, he was entrusted with the care, education, and protection of Ulysses’ son, Telemachus. The term for the person being mentored has evolved. Historically, the mentored person was referred to as a “protégé” but that seems to emphasize a subordinate relationship. More commonly now we refer to those being mentored as “mentees”.

Traditionally, mentors have been older and more experienced individuals, offering guidance and support to younger people. The emphasis today should be on experience rather than age, although there is often a correlation. Mentors provide both career-related guidance and psychosocial support. The career-related functions focus on career development and “showing the ropes” or the unwritten rules of an organization or profession. This function can include coaching and discussion of ethical issues. The psychosocial functions enhance the mentee’s sense of competence, identity and work-role effectiveness. These functions can include role modelling, acceptance and confirmation, counselling and friendship.

A recent movie about the relationship between Clark Terry, the respected jazz trumpeter, and Justin Kauflin, a young blind jazz pianist, is a great introduction to the nature of a mentorship relationship. Clark Terry shares his experiences as well as his tips on jazz phrasing. More importantly, he provides support and, at critical junctures, confidence for the young pianist. Clark Terry is suffering significant health issues throughout the movie and it becomes clear that the mentoring role is one that keeps him positive as he struggles with them. Justin Kauflin has had to overcome significant barriers in his life and the mentoring clearly gives him the necessary confidence to commence a career in a precarious occupation. Although he has significant support from his family members, it is obvious that mentoring by a “giant of jazz” is the necessary ingredient for his development as an artist.

Unlike in many occupations, adjudicators don’t often get constructive feedback on their work. Judicial review applications are blunt instruments of feedback (although they can sometimes be painfully instructive). Colleague adjudicators do not often see you in action. For the most part, it is inappropriate to seek feedback from the parties. Mentors can therefore play a critical role in talking through situations that new adjudicators face and assisting them in crafting appropriate responses, or in learning from their experiences.

Some tribunals have formal mentorship structures, with a senior adjudicator assigned to newer appointees. This is an important part of development and provides some oversight by the tribunal. However, there is also a benefit in having informal mentoring opportunities outside formal reporting structures. This ensures open and frank discussion between the mentor and the mentored. In general, informal mentorships are evaluated by both mentors and mentees as being more effective and meaningful than formal mentorships.

In a recent book about informal learning, Robin Hoyle points out some of the risks of unsupervised informal learning, including new employees learning bad habits. In one of my first summer jobs, a long-service employee told me that I should stop being so efficient as it was important to make the work fill the day. That is why it is important to have volunteer mentors and not impose the role on adjudicators. Those interested in mentoring are more likely to have a positive approach and be willing to share their experiences and listen to the adjudicator being mentored.

There is a teaching element to the mentorship relationship, but it should be a gentle teaching style without judgment. Unlike other mentoring relationships, it is also important that the mentor respect the boundaries of adjudicator independence. Adjudicator independence is a critical aspect of our administrative justice system. It is therefore critical that mentors refrain from telling mentees how to answer a particular question in a case. Mentors also need to respect the principle of deliberative secrecy, both in sharing their experiences and in assisting mentees in their decision-making processes.

Ethical codes for adjudicators and mediators do not specifically address the informal mentoring relationship. Some codes of conduct set out an obligation to be collegial, but that is usually restricted to collegiality within the tribunal. Other professions are far more advanced in both encouraging and providing ethical guidelines for mentorship relationships. The medical profession is perhaps the most advanced in this area. For example, the Canadian Nurses’ Association and the Canadian Veterinary Association provide guidance to mentors and mentees on successful relationships. The Law Society of Upper Canada and the Ontario Bar Association both have mentorship initiatives and provide some guidance for mentors and mentees. In addition, PracticePro in Ontario has a guide for mentoring that sets out the appropriate parameters of a mentoring relationship for lawyers.

Creating guidelines for mentorship and setting out the ethical requirements serves two critical purposes: it encourages mentorship through validation and it specifies the ethical framework for a mentorship relationship. More discussion is needed within the adjudicator community about what mentorship guidelines for adjudicators should contain, but here is my initial list of areas that need to be addressed in guidelines:

  • Protecting adjudicator independence in decision-making
  • Protecting confidentiality of information that is not on the public record
  • Protecting the principle of deliberative secrecy
  • Setting out the limits on participation of the mentor in discussions on particular cases that a mentee is deciding

Clark Terry died on February 21, 2015 and the movie Keep on Keepin’ On is a wonderful testament to a life of giving back to young jazz musicians. In the movie, he sends Justin Kauflin a pair of his lucky socks to wear at a critical performance. That is not expected of experienced adjudicators, but we can share our experiences with those less experienced and let them walk a few blocks in our shoes.

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