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Legally speaking: Management, mentoring

If you are thinking you might like to apply for that open nurse manager position on your unit, it might be helpful to learn more about what nurse managers do, how you can best fulfill this role, and any potential legal pitfalls that might exist.

Management generally has been defined as the art of securing maximum result with a minimum of effort so that maximum prosperity and happiness occurs for both the employer and the employee and the public is provided with the best possible service.1

Management includes the functions of planning, organizing, directing, coordinating and controlling, reporting and recording, and budgeting.2

You may think those elements of management are impossible to learn, certainly in a short period of time. However, one way in which the learning curve is made somewhat easier is through mentoring. Mentoring has been defined in many ways, but it is clearly a reciprocal and collaborative learning relationship between two individuals with mutual goals and shared accountability for the success of the relationship.3 The mentor is the guide, expert and role model who helps the new or experienced mentee.

If you apply these definitions to nursing, you may recall that Patricia Benner, PhD, RN, FAAN, in her book “From Novice to Expert: Excellence and Power in Clinical Practice,” states that learning new skills is a progressive experience that has many levels – novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient and expert. The novice stage is not always a comfortable one, but with the right mentor and the right mentoring process, you can advance through the phases that follow until you reach your own level of expertise.

A good mentor is one who guides, is approachable, reasonable and confident, one who allows you to develop your skills in your own way, and one who emphasizes continued development of their mentees’ critical thinking skills.4

If you want to try mentoring, you must have certain attributes. You need to be willing to learn as much as possible from your mentor, be trusting, be open to self-disclosure, be willing and have the skill to give and receive feedback, and slowly balance your independence with your reliance on your mentor.5

As positive as mentoring sounds, it is not always a favorable experience. Two nurse authors have identified power abuses within the relationship as one cautionary concern.6

Power abuses can be seen in mentoring relationships where gender and/or race are issues. If the mentoring relationship becomes dysfunctional due to such harmful conduct as bullying, sabotaging, inappropriate relationships with boundary crossing, or harassment (sexual or otherwise), legal concerns arise and liability may occur.

Because the mentor is arguably in the more powerful position in most mentoring relationships, any breach of the mentee’s rights in relation to sexual or other harassment can lead the mentee to file a suit against the mentor alleging a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.7

Petty slights or annoyances within the mentoring relationship would not give rise to a harassment suit. However, physical assaults, ridicule, mockery and interference with work performance that must be endured to continue to be employed, or conduct that is so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive, would meet the requirements for such a suit.

If the mentor also is the mentee’s supervisor, the mentor’s harassing conduct automatically creates liability for the employer if, for example, the mentee leaves the position or the mentor is instrumental in causing the mentee to be terminated. The only way the employer can avoid such liability is if it tried to prevent and properly correct the harassing behavior and the employee (mentee) unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.8

If the mentor is not a supervisor of the mentee, the employer may still face liability for the mentor’s conduct if it knew, or should have known, about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.9

There are many other potential legal issues that might arise in a mentor-mentee relationship. But, more often than not, mentoring for success in your role as a nurse manager can result in a positive outcome for you. If, though, you think or feel you are being treated in a manner that is not producing a productive and successful mentoring experience, you need to speak to the chief nursing officer in your facility. The CNO can formulate the needed changes to make your mentoring experience one of professional growth, not only from novice to expert, but one that also prepares you to be a nurse manager who works with others as equal partners within a context of mutual respect and collaboration.10


  1. “Functions of Administration.” Nursing Management (2013). Accessed May 20, 2015.
  2. Id.
  3. “Mentoring Nurses Toward Success.” Minority Nurse (2015). Available at Accessed May 26, 2015.
  4. Id., at 4-5.
  5. Id., at 3-4.
  6. Janet Green and Debra Jackson (2014), “Mentoring: Some Cautionary Notes For The Nursing Profession,” 47 (1-2) Contemporary Nurse, 79-87.
  7. “Harassment” (n.d.). U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Available at: Accessed May 26, 2015.
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. “The IOM Sees a Future Where All Nurses Are Leaders” (2013). Available at: Accessed May 27, 2015.

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By | 2020-03-30T09:13:19-04:00 June 26th, 2015|Categories: Nursing Careers and Jobs, Nursing News|0 Comments

About the Author:

Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN
Our legal information columnist Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN, received her Juris Doctor from Loyola University Chicago School of Law and concentrates her solo law practice in health law and legal representation, consultation and education for healthcare professionals, school of nursing faculty and healthcare delivery facilities. Brent has conducted many seminars on legal issues in nursing and healthcare delivery across the country and has published extensively in the area of law and nursing practice. She brings more than 30 years of experience to her role of legal information columnist. Her posts are designed for educational purposes only and are not to be taken as specific legal or other advice. Individuals who need advice on a specific incident or work situation should contact a nurse attorney or attorney in their state. Visit The American Association of Nurse Attorneys website to search its attorney referral database by state.

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