How to Create an Effective Job Shadowing Program

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Offering employees a job shadow program can be one way to retain employees and develop their skills and abilities as well as their understanding of how the organization functions best.

Organizations are constantly looking for ways to retain their employees, develop workers and become more efficient. One method that may help to accomplish these objectives is shadowing.

What is job shadowing?

Shadowing is a formal program within an organization that allows an employee to follow and observe another employee as they go about their daily work tasks. Participants have practical, hands-on experience with the routines and tasks of the position, leading to a realistic sense of what the job is all about.

For example, a human resources staff member who's interested in recruiting may use the organization's job shadowing program for employees to watch and learn from a recruiter. Over a predetermined amount of time, the HR person can see how the recruiter does their job as they attempt to fill open roles.

Shadowing programs for employees are different from mentorship or interning programs in a number of ways. Shadowing tends to be for a shorter period of time. Also, the goal isn't necessarily to build the participant's skill set, although shadowing could be used this way. Generally speaking, it's designed to expose participants to roles or aspects of the firm to which they may not normally be exposed. In other words, they're provided a snapshot of a day in the life of the person hosting the participant.

How to design a job shadowing program

If you're interested in starting a shadowing program within your organization, you'll want to follow a specific set of steps to make sure your program is effective:

1. Define your purpose and choose your participants for your program

Effective shadowing programs have specific purposes and applications. Decide in advance what you want participants to learn and what experiences you want them to have. Then identify the characteristics or qualifications of those who will be eligible to be a part of the program. These details will change over time, but discussing them in advance will make it easier for employees to self-select into the program.

When establishing a shadowing program for employees, make sure that it conforms to federal, state and local anti-discrimination laws and regulations. Beyond complying with government regulations, look to remove as many non-job-essential barriers to participation as possible. Along with ensuring compliance, this approach may help support a firm's diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Important questions to ask:

  • What is the overall aim of the program? How does its purpose fit into the organization's strategic needs?
  • Why should employees participate (i.e., "What's in it for me?")?
  • Who may be eligible to participate as a shadow or host? What are the requirements for participation?

2. Create a structure for your program

Before you invite employees into the program, make sure you've identified the structure when it comes to how long it will last, the daily schedule, key activities and if there is any review or evaluation component. Clear guidelines and expectations will help all participants have a positive experience.

Important questions to ask:

  • What are the expectations of those involved?
  • How is progress or success measured for those involved?
  • How are problems addressed if and when they occur?

3. Launch and monitor a test run of your program

Before rolling out your program to your whole organization, launch a few test pairs and check in with them to monitor how it goes. This will allow you to assess how much support each shadow pair will need in the long run and address any issues that come up at a manageable scale.

Important question to ask:

  • How is the program tracked and measured on an organizational level?

4. Evaluate and refine your program

Review and assess every iteration of your shadowing program to look for opportunities to streamline and improve it. The better you understand what works well and what doesn't work well, the more effective and valuable the program will become in the long run.

Important question to ask:

  • What happens after the successful completion of the shadowing program?

Benefits of a job shadowing program

Programs like these can provide several advantages to the participants, hosts and the organization alike. Here are some of the reasons shadowing will continue to be a popular and productive professional development activity:

  • For the participant. Shadowing provides valuable exposure. These programs can give a participant a realistic view of a different role, which can lead to improved communication and fewer silos. It can also be used to complement other forms of training and development. For example, staff members who received classroom-based training in a particular competency can shadow another employee who demonstrates it in their work. This complementary approach of a shadowing program for employees may help them retain information better.
  • For the host. A shadowing program can provide a way for veteran staff members to give back by helping less skilled and experienced colleagues. This can help to reinforce organizational norms and culture. The host also potentially gains by having their work observed and understood by someone with a fresh perspective. Being able to articulate why you do what you do to someone unfamiliar with the tasks can lead to better practices or confirmation that current workflows are effective as-is.
  • For the organization. Programs like these can lead to increased productivity due to staff members gaining a broader understanding of how the business works. The interactions between the shadow and host may also lead to new approaches to how work is done, contributing to the company's overall efficiency and productivity.

Shadowing programs can also help retention by introducing potential career development opportunities for participants. When providing opportunities for promotion or skill development, these programs can help motivate employees to stay at your organization and be more fully engaged.

While virtually any job can benefit from shadowing, industries and roles that rely on hands-on experience and day-to-day operations that have an ebb and flow can benefit the most. For example, entry-level health care roles like doctors and nurses as well as educational roles like teachers and administrators could significantly benefit from shadowing a peer with a few years more experience. The same can be said for business and finance roles like marketing and accounting where experienced individuals can pass on their perspective to people with less experience.

Preparing employees for job shadowing

The more you can prepare both participants and hosts for their shadowing experience, the more participants will get out of the experience. Clear guidelines and objectives are a great first step, but you'll also want to offer everyone a chance to ask questions, prepare any necessary materials and set aside time throughout the day and week of the shadow program to ensure they aren't overwhelmed by work duties.

Here's a short list of questions for participants and hosts to consider to make sure they get and give as much as possible throughout the program:

Questions for hosts

  • What do participants need to understand about my daily routine?
  • What skills and competencies will I demonstrate that will help participants understand this role?
  • How can I show them the challenges of my role and how I resolve them?
  • How will I make sure my shadow feels comfortable communicating and asking questions of me?

Questions for participants

  • What do I want to learn from this experience?
  • How will I apply what I learn from this experience?
  • What am I most curious about?
  • What feedback do I have about this experience?

The bottom line

A job shadowing program for employees can be a great way for qualified employees to grow within an organization. Care and critical thought must be used in its creation, rollout and maintenance. This will help to safeguard against ineffectiveness as well as noncompliance.

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