Employee Training: The Shadow Side of Job Shadowing

When a small business brings on a recruit there are two forms of onboarding: administrative onboarding which is typically carried out by admin and involves getting them set up with technology, ordering required gear or equipment, collecting required HR information, etc.; and effectiveness onboarding which should be the responsibility of their direct manager and gets them acclimatized and productive in their new job.

Most of the time spent in effectiveness onboarding is job-specific training. It’s typically done via “job shadowing” or following someone around who is experienced (and ideally competent) at doing the work until such time the organization considers the recruit ready to swim on their own. Or sink.

There are better and worse job shadowing plans, and there are other effectiveness onboarding processes and tools that complement them.  

Shadowing Benefits

Managers should be involved in developing the shadowing training plans, however, technically, shadowing “requires” almost no manager time. The responsibility for training is delegated to a peer of the new-comer and the manager can get back to the work at hand after investing countless hours in the recruiting process. What a relief!

When the shadowing period is believed “complete” the new person is theoretically a productive new member of the team. Those that don’t perform quickly are a disappointment to the manager (“we have to hire again?!”) but also considered a victory on the adage of “hire slowly, fire quickly”.

In a culture where survival of the fittest reigns (e.g., a car dealership or consultancy with an “up or out” mentality), shadowing is an excellent way to speed up the employee lifecycle.  

Another benefit is to the person being shadowed. Teaching is a wonderful way to strengthen an experienced person’s skills. By having someone watch what they do they also have to consider why they do it and analyse many activities that would otherwise just be performed by habit. Whether this results in process improvement or confirmation that things are being done well, the trainer’s overall ability usually improves.

If shadowing is part of your effectiveness onboarding, consider any ways it could be improved. For instance:

  • Create a skills matrix to track progress. Categories like “untrained”, “familiar”, and “competent” can be used to track progress and ensure training is complete before the shadow period ends.
  • Train the trainer. Ensure the person being shadowed understands the expectations of what they should train, how much time it should take, and some of the fundamentals of how to train.

Shadowing Drawbacks

Most of the shadowing drawbacks are a result of the person being shadowed being great at their job, but not necessarily being a great teacher.

It’s also possible the person’s experience at their job has led them to perform it in a different way than someone brand new to the role. Consider, for example, a salesperson being shadowed who has learned over time that the best leads come from referrals and, therefore, cold calling is a waste of time. They aren’t wrong, but the newbie has no referrals to rely on and won’t get the training they really need.

Also, even the A-players aren’t the best at every aspect of the job. We all have strengths, but it’s rare to find people with the insight and self-awareness to realize (and admit!) where they are under performing. Without clear direction, the trainee may just follow all the steps the veteran is walking – even the missteps. How could they be expected to discern the difference?

Once the shadowing period is over, throwing someone into the deep end of the pool certainly tests their drive to survive, however, it isn’t necessarily the way to develop an Olympic calibre athlete.

Additional Training Tools

Fortunately, there are training tools managers can develop to make the effectiveness onboarding more efficient and simultaneously provide their newest recruit some water wings:

  • Swimlane Process Flow Diagrams: These diagrams pictorially show what each position within the organization does to fulfill customer demands and gives a bit of insight into how they do it too. While there are many benefits to developing a process flow, the flows allow newbies to understand how they fit into the context of overall business processes.
  • Written Procedures and Checklists: A procedure is different than a checklist, but both show the steps required to execute a task. While drafting the process flow, the list of procedures and checklists appears for future documentation. Managers are often reluctant to get started on this project finding documentation to be too time consuming. What they don’t realize is that the manager is not supposed to create the documentation. They are supposed to approve it! Training is an excellent opportunity for the new person to document what they’ve learned and then have their trainer review to see what they picked up, what they got wrong, and what was forgotten in the training itself.
  • Video Instruction: Procedures and checklists can be gold when you need them, but they need a degree of formality that sometimes causes companies to avoid creating them at all. Enter, the smartphone. We now can record what we are doing with commentary and store it in the cloud for new recruits to watch on repeat, at 2x speed, or whatever is the best way for them to get the information.
  • Simulations / Case Studies: An opportunity to practice a task before the real event can be a great way to learn. Big presentation coming up? Present internally first. Or at least present and record yourself – we’re often our own worst critics. When it comes to training, offering the recruit a simulation or a circumstance we’ve encountered in the past to try to puzzle through allows them to problem solve at low risk.
  • External Training: If you can outsource it, go for it. There are pros and cons to the different external options which we will address in a different post. If you’ve found an external training provider for any of the skills the recruit will need to develop, using them reduces the drain on the internal resources while simultaneously ensuring that future training on these skills will be executed consistently. Even if the external training only gets them 60% of what they will need, that’s a strong foundation for the company to then build upon.

But What If They Leave?

The perennial lament, “If I spend all that time and money training them, eventually they just leave and take it with them,” is wrongheaded. There are a couple of alternatives on the path to developing a capable, valuable employee to service your clients. One is don’t train them. Unfortunately, if they don’t know how to do their job, you won’t be in business for long.

Another is to pay more for talent that already knows what they’re doing, in which case you’d better test for ability in your recruiting process. Even then, they need to know your company’s unique approach. Some training is bound to be required.  

If you hire well and pay well it’s unlikely you will attract the nefarious people out there looking to take whatever training they can from your organization and give nothing in return. Yes, there are good-for-nothing lazy people out there. But most people are decent people trying their best. Give them the tools and just let them do it!

By the way, if you invest in your people by providing them training and opportunities, there is a good chance they will leave. This is especially true in a small business without a lot of growth opportunity. Strategic planning can make this less of a risk, but even the best strategies sometimes call for limited advancement opportunities in your company. If they’re ready for the next step in their career and you can’t provide it, you probably want them to move on – after all, you wouldn’t want to hold someone back from achieving their potential and you definitely don’t want unhappy, disengaged, demotivated people lurking in the hallways.

The cold reality is that everyone will leave your company – they might leave for a better opportunity, for personal reasons you can’t control, or feet first in a wooden box. But everyone will leave. Even you. Try to spend less time worried about what you’ll lose when they leave and more time developing them into the most productive, valuable people around. You’ll be happy you did while they’re there.

What Now?

Small businesses will almost always use job shadowing for the bulk of their effectiveness onboarding, but it does not have to be in the sink-or-swim context. Recognizing and developing simple systems and tools to support both the trainer and trainee is an investment that pays a return for every subsequent hire.

Spending a day on process flow facilitation or offering management training to those that will be shadowed is a decision the best companies make to grow faster and more resiliently.

Bellrock offers management training programs and strategic planning packages to small businesses across Canada. Our purpose is to unleash potential, in the process of which we develop life-long relationships and raving fans. If you found this article valuable, don’t be stingy. Share.

Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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