What Is Shadowing?

Shadowing is an informal way for someone to learn what it is like to perform a particular job at a workplace. An individual follows around, or shadows, the worker already in that role.

Job shadowing opportunities can be made available to new or junior employees, but they also may be taken up by lateral hires from another part of an organization who need to get up the learning curve quickly in their new roles. Shadowing has a finite period or is meant to last only as long as necessary—that is, until the person new to the role feels comfortable enough to handle the responsibilities on his or her own.

Understanding Shadowing

Shadowing an employee at work gives the new hire (or future role-taker) an idea of what a typical day is like in those shoes. Suppose a fresh college graduate with a Computer Science degree begins work at a tech company. This company has a shadowing program for its new employees, assigning them to senior-level employees who have mentor-like qualities (i.e., they enjoy teaching and are patient).

[Important: Shadowing is not restricted to individuals who are new to the professional workforce, as it can be an equally useful tool for those in established careers who are looking to pivot to new directions.]

In the above example, she shadows a software engineer who is responsible for coding a platform for a banking application. She sits next to him at his desk and observes as he carries out his main task, asking him questions along the way to help her gain an understanding of what she would eventually be responsible for. She attends the daily progress team meetings each morning, sits in on conference calls with the bank, and follows him into meetings with his manager.

Shadowing over a number of days or weeks—whatever the case may be—warms her up to hit the ground running when she is given her own desk and first job assignment at the company.

Interning Versus Shadowing

Interning is a popular way to initiate a potential employee into a firm. Internship programs can be formal or informal, but they are different from shadowing in at least two aspects.

First, not all interns return to work full-time. An internship program is a type of courtship in which a prospective employee and a company learn about each other to see if there is a good fit for a full-time employment relationship. Individuals shadowing others are already employed by the firm.

Second, internship programs generally involve the farming out of simple or routine tasks under a set of supervisors. Interns are given tasks, they perform them, and report back to their supervisors. The supervisors guide their work and provide feedback at the conclusion of their internships. Those who shadow existing employees are not expected to perform functions of the job; instead, they follow around senior employees to learn how to effectively carry out the specific role that they will assume in the near future.

Key Takeaways

  • The term "shadowing" informally describes when an individual learns what it is like to execute particular workplace tasks by closely observing a more experienced staff member.
  • Shadowing may apply to college graduates or other job-minded individuals looking to get their feet in the door, but it may equally apply to existing employees who are looking to laterally transfer to a different department within their company.
  • Shadowing may not ultimately result in employment with a company if the shadower discovers that a particular place of employment isn't an ideal fit.