Formal corporate mentor programs rarely mean more than a free lunch and an occasional "How's it going?" in the hallway. But in a job market in which employees can easily jump across the street for more money and perks, FitzGerald Communications, based in Cambridge, Mass., is using a turbocharged mentor program to hang on to its staff. The effort is so serious, the company has produced an 18-page mentoring handbook.

According to Jennifer Wambold, the public-relations firm's vice-president of human resources, new employees are paired up for their first 90 days with buddies from the account teams. Then those employees design goals for their own development over the next year, picking out three mentor candidates who they think could help them.

Once paired, the mentoring partners meet formally once each quarter. Most meet much more frequently than that. Kim Miller, an account director, says she sits down with each of her three "mentees" at least once a month. And just in case anyone was thinking about flaking out on the deal, forget about it. Before the program even starts, both mentor and mentee sign a contract.

"Accountability is a key component," Wambold says. "I know of mentor programs that have flopped because companies aren't holding staff accountable." To amplify the program's importance, FitzGerald uses mentor and mentee input in its annual employee reviews.

It seems to work. FitzGerald boasts a 32% turnover rate, compared with a 42% industry average, according to the trade magazine PR Week. Miller, who has been with FitzGerald since August 1996, says she thinks the mentoring program helps both attract and retain employees. "I do think it's partly the program that's kept me here over three years," says Miller, 28, adding that that's a long time. "One year at a PR company is like seven years in reality."