Job Shadowing vs. Training: Which is Better?
Job Shadowing vs. Training: Which is Better?

Job Shadowing vs. Training: Which is Better?

Leadership Development, Employee Learning & Development, Company Culture   — 4 MIN


Imagine that you had to go to the hospital for a serious surgical operation. Would you be content if your surgeon had watched several operations, but hadn’t been to medical school? Of course not! And you would be equally uncomfortable with a surgeon who had only read about the operation but never seen one done. While these are extreme examples, they illustrate the importance of formal learning and job shadowing.  

Job shadowing is often described as on-the-job training. While shadowing is often part of many corporate training programs, shadowing alone is inadequate for training. At HSI Blue Ocean Brain we view job shadowing vs. training as separate teaching methods with different purposes. Employee learning and development is most effective when employers understand the distinction and combine the two, rather than choosing one over the other—especially when designing employee onboarding.

Understanding job shadowing

In job shadowing, a new employee spends a few hours, days, or weeks alongside a more experienced staff member. The shadower can see first-hand how a trained professional does the job. They can ask questions and may be allowed to try some tasks themselves under the close supervision of the senior employee.

As part of onboarding, shadowing provides exposure to the real-world work environment. It gives the new employee insight into the job’s responsibilities and the hard and soft skills expected of them. It also allows a glimpse into how they will be expected to interact and communicate with coworkers, supervisors, customers, vendors, etc. in their new role.

While job shadowing is typically limited in duration, it can transition to a mentor/mentee relationship that continues beyond the onboarding process.

The broader scope of job training

Training for most jobs must go beyond what happens in job shadowing. Shadowing can only scratch the surface of necessary training topics, and it tends to be specific to the narrow set of duties that come with a position. Corporate training programs are designed to teach employees practical skills and build their knowledge base about their position, and the company holistically.

For example, a formal corporate training program ensures a more uniform, standardized curriculum for manual skills, safety, and compliance. It can also cover things like corporate culture, diversity and inclusion, and leadership training. That training can include in-person classes, online self-directed lessons, hands-on demonstrations, practice, or a combination. 

Training can and should continue throughout employment as part of ongoing professional development. In short, job shadowing is helpful to get an employee up and running by seeing a typical day in their new position. Job training is the foundation for the employee’s present and future with the company.

Shadowing vs. training: benefits and limitations

Job shadowing is a great way for an employee or job candidate to be introduced to a new position. It has its limitations, however, and should not replace a comprehensive corporate training program.

  • Shadowing covers the rules, not the exceptions. Spending a short amount of time shadowing limits the amount of exposure to some instances. For example, will the shadower see unhappy customers and learn how to deal with them? Or will the machine they’ll be working with jam so they can see a demonstration about clearing it?
  • Shadowing might skip what not to do. Safety violations, harassment, bullying—there are many things a new employee needs to learn not to do. These rules are too important to leave up to informal conversations during job shadowing. Instead, they should be covered during training sessions.
  • The shadowed employee may be too experienced. Over time, employees often develop their way of doing certain tasks. Consider seasoned waitstaff who can balance an entire table’s orders along one arm. Or someone who can “eyeball” a measurement with surprising accuracy. It could take years for a brand-new employee to be able to do that. Shadowed staff need to understand their role as a mentor by sticking to the basics, meeting new staff where they are, and being careful not to set unrealistic expectations.
  • There’s a chance of perpetuating biases. A shadower may pick up on opinions or attitudes from a senior employee that may be misinformed and counterproductive. For example, an employee may tell a shadower to disregard a safety warning as unimportant. Or they may criticize or belittle certain coworkers based on race, gender, or seniority on the job. A new employee may be influenced in their behavior or opinions by these biased ideas.  

This does not mean that job shadowing is not worthwhile. It does, however, underscore the need to use shadowing alongside other training methods. 

A well-planned training program will fill the gaps to teach soft skills that job shadowing can not such as leadership, empathy, active listening, and communication.

Integrating shadowing into
corporate training programs

Training in general skills first, either online or in a classroom, and then following up with shadowing, provides the opportunity to put what employees have learned into context in a real-world, hands-on way. This approach makes a more well-rounded learning experience that gives them the tools they’ll need to succeed. 

The VARK model of learning suggests that people process new information in different ways—visual, auditory, reading and writing, or kinesthetic. Combining skills training and job shadowing helps reinforce learning by using a mix of these methods. 

For example, a trainee may watch a how-to video about operating a machine and read a user manual and safety instructions. Then, during job shadowing, they can hear a step-by-step explanation and see it in action.

It is also important that managers are intentional about who they choose to have a new employee shadow. The ideal staff member will have proven leadership skills and the ability to explain things clearly and answer questions. This may require professional development for senior staff members to teach them how to mentor successfully in job shadowing situations. 

Job shadowing can go a long way to making an employee feel comfortable in their new role. It helps them see how their skills apply in the real world. That said, job shadowing should not be confused with training, or used as a substitute for a corporate training program. 

HSI Blue Ocean Brain’s vast microlearning platform can provide everything your new employees need when onboarding and beyond. Schedule a consultation today.


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