Me and My Shadow

Have you ever had the nagging feeling you were being followed? It might be true. Job shadowing - where a student or a prospective or current employee "shadows" an existing worker to observe how a job is done - is increasingly popular thanks to the recession-driven focus on squeezing the maximum return from every business dollar invested.

A survey conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) found that only 31 percent of 262 business leaders offered job shadowing for current employees. But another 14 percent declared plans to implement shadowing programs within a year or two. Among respondents from organizations reporting higher performance in revenue growth, market share, profitability and customer satisfaction, nearly 4 out of 10 say they already have job shadowing programs, and another 10 percent say they'll add programs soon.
Benefits All Around

Offering employees experiential, hands-on learning opportunities is at the core of job shadowing. Shadowing affords an observing or prospective employee the chance to be immersed in the actual job environment, making it possible to see an experienced worker apply the skills and traits needed to accomplish the work. An insightful observer also can glean information about the personal characteristics that contribute to success in the position.

The specific benefits of work shadowing vary by situation. Shadowing already is a staple of the educational system's outreach efforts, providing students with opportunities to see what the work world, its industries and its occupations are all about. Students who shadow employees also get an idea of the expectations employers place on their workers and can sample corporate culture. When they open their doors to student shadowers, businesses aspiring to attract future workers find that job shadowing programs help them make inroads into educational institutions and provide opportunities to foster vocational interest and relationships with tomorrow's workforce. Technology company Cisco Systems reaches out to students with shadowing opportunities through its Networking Academy educational initiative, which emphasizes preparation for careers in information communications technology. Over time, such relationships can help employers address anticipated talent shortages, especially in hard-to-fill positions.

Pre-hire shadowing arrangements can give job candidates a clearer idea of the realities of positions for which they've applied, while also demonstrating how an organization follows through on its employee value proposition. Employers can use the shadowing option to support their selection process, boosting the likelihood that a candidate will understand and match not only the job, but also the organizational culture. Some 75 percent of respondents from the i4cp survey found that providing a better understanding of the organization is the top benefit associated with job shadowing.

Richard L. Curry Jr., executive director of staff development emergency operations for the Indiana Department of Correction, said the pre-hire component of the job shadowing program he oversees helps provide potential employees of the state's department of correction with a clearer understanding of job expectations and working conditions.

"We have something of a hard product to sell when it comes to recruiting," Curry explained. "Showing candidates what the job's about beforehand helps us make sure that we're not only recruiting good people, but also retaining them." Curry said pre-employment job shadowing is now mandatory for all new department of correction hires.

Organizations such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals advocate beginning the shadowing experience as part of new-hire orientation to help engage new employees early in their tenure while providing an introduction to job duties and workplace routines. Other potential learning benefits for the new employee include exposure to the tools required for the job and their proper use, introduction to the technologies used in job execution, and opportunities to establish relationships and network with the shadowed employee and his or her work team, manager and other colleagues.

Some employers prefer to orient new employees before involving them in job shadowing to build on the new employee's existing knowledge of the company. Post-orientation job shadowing can reinforce engagement, strengthen on-boarding and training processes and shorten new hires' time to full productivity. Pamela Genske, human resources director for Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI), said her firm's employees learn about job shadowing opportunities during orientation and can request a shadowing assignment any time after they've joined the company. "People remember what happens in situations they've been placed in much more effectively than they recall a theory they've been taught in a classroom," Genske said.

Job shadowing programs can benefit a range of employees and potential employees. According to the i4cp survey, half of the respondents who said they had job shadowing programs confirm that all employees are allowed to shadow others. A third of respondents say they limit shadowing to high-potential employees. Others target such groups as managers and management trainees, professional employees, women and minorities.

For existing employees, job shadowing serves a number of functions. Skill development is a benefit cited by nearly three-quarters of the respondents to i4cp's job shadowing survey. The research also found almost two-thirds of participants anticipate that job shadowing will facilitate their succession planning efforts. Improvement to internal communication is another expected benefit.

Curry said his agency's job shadowing component for existing employees gives "qualified employees an opportunity to expand their professional development and prepare for promotional opportunities." Companies also cite the value of job shadowing as a tool to promote knowledge retention. In written comments in the i4cp survey, respondents said that job shadowing "allows a better quality of knowledge retention than other processes," and it "builds company knowledge and awareness."

Employees who provide their peers with shadowing opportunities stand to gain personally and professionally from the experience as well. Setting an example for a shadowing colleague requires forethought and a thorough understanding of the work to be demonstrated. Ann Stewart, deputy commander for Navy Personnel Command, established a job shadowing program in the Tennessee-based facility that acts as personnel headquarters for the U.S. Navy's 330,000-plus workforce. She said hosting a shadowing employee "is an opportunity to get 360-degree feedback for your own job … a different perspective. Any time you have someone from outside your area look in and have an open exchange about that, it's helpful."

Further, Stewart said job shadowing is "easy to set up. Other than the time of the people participating, it hasn't cost us anything. Even if we can't always provide upward mobility, job shadowing gives us a way of recognizing that we have a lot of opportunities within our organization. It's a great way to enable employees to spend some time in other people's shoes so they can understand the challenges and the stresses their colleagues face."

How Does Job Shadowing Work?

The extent and focus of job shadowing vary from one organization to the next, but there are some common considerations to explore before implementing a program.

The i4cp survey respondents produced a list of 17 activities needed to develop job shadowing programs. Some 56 percent of participants with shadowing programs in their organizations said they held internal discussions about implementing shadowing. Other startup strategies include seeking feedback from workers who were shadowed, creating guidelines for a job shadowing program and its processes, communicating information about the program to relevant managers and others, and piloting job shadowing to a specified group within the organization.

Responsibility for job shadowing programs often falls to individual business units, human resources or corporate training and development functions. More than half of the respondents to the job shadowing survey told i4cp their firms included shadowing as part of their mentoring programs. Fernán Cepero, vice president of human resources at the YMCA of Greater Rochester in New York, distinguishes between the two. "We have a mentoring program as well as job shadowing," he said. "Mentoring is more informal, working on an as-needed basis for the employee. Job shadowing is very specific, with the participant focused on developing knowledge and expertise in a particular role."

The length of time in which employees engage in job shadowing varies among organizations. Thirty-four percent of i4cp's survey respondents said shadowing lasted one to two days, while 31 percent said it continued for four or more weeks. Duration depends on the purpose and complexity of the shadowing assignment.

Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island's executive job shadowing program has been in place for more than four years. Any employee nominated by his or her manager and approved by the division vice president may ask to shadow a company executive for a day.

According to Genske, the CEO and about a dozen top executives are enthusiastic about hosting shadowing employees. The workers gain valuable insight into the expectations and challenges senior leaders face. "[Afterward,] we ask the shadowers to put together presentations of what they learned to share with their department colleagues. Since everyone can't shadow our small group of top executives, the presentation helps to further spread the benefits of shadowing," she explained. Thanks to the high visibility executives give the program, Genske said job shadowing quickly became part of the culture at BCBSRI, requiring little promotion and resulting in a waiting list for participants.

Cepero said that at the YMCA of Greater Rochester, job shadowing serves two purposes: to support both retention and development goals. "We go to great lengths to find great talent, and we certainly want them to stay," he said. "Job shadowing helps new hires acclimate to their jobs and learn the culture of the organization."

For existing employees, Cepero said shadowing "helps them develop professionally and begin to open some doors and insights into their careers." Workers self-identify for the program through discussions with their direct managers. Upon the manager's approval, "a match is made with one of our leaders who is recognized as a subject-matter expert in the role to which the employee aspires," he said.

Cepero said the YMCA's program goes beyond simple observation and involves periodic shadowing over a three- to six-month time frame. "The participant observes, but also has some hands-on work on projects they co-lead or co-facilitate with the person they're shadowing. This adds an experiential element to the shadowing." More than 250 employees have shadowed colleagues during the program's seven-plus years of operation. Cepero said the program's success has contributed to the YMCA's single-digit turnover rate.
Ensure Job Shadowing Impact

As with any organizational program, business leaders will expect job shadowing to produce a significant return on investment. Yet the i4cp research found that 86 percent of respondents report that their organizations don't measure the monetary value of their shadowing programs. Feedback from program participants and their managers are two mechanisms companies can use to gauge success, though more formal measures were cited when i4cp asked about metrics that reflect the value of job shadowing.

Turnover rate among job shadowing participants is the top metric organizations use to assess their program's value, according to respondents. Assessments made before and after shadowing constituted the second choice among metrics, with accomplishment of specific work goals ranking third. Participants' performance levels also serve as a gauge of program value, along with the levels of satisfaction expressed by both shadowed and shadowing employees.

Organizational leaders who have experience with their own job shadowing programs are often enthusiastic proponents of the low-cost training and development method. The YMCA's Cepero said, "Look at job shadowing as a component in your whole leadership development portfolio, and don't confuse it with mentoring by trying to have mentors also serve as shadowees." Curry echoes Cepero's view. He said the Indiana Department of Correction views its pre-hire job shadowing as "one of many tools in our selection process."

Job shadowing programs offer organizations an affordable means to gain a range of development, selection, engagement and retention benefits. In today's recession-scarred business world, lean organizations are likely to drive greater use of this versatile learning approach in the years ahead.

This article was originally published in the September 2010 edition of Talent Management magazine.

Carol Morrison
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), specializing in workforce well-being research.