More Than Competencies and Checklists: The Shadow Side of Nurse Orientation

‘Developing beneficial working relationships is part of a successful nursing orientation. If you’re lucky, your preceptor is explaining the nuances.’

Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, is an oncology nurse navigator and writes a monthly post for this blog. The illustration below is hers.

Paradisi_Illustration_ShadowI led the first patient I had contact with as a nurse navigator to the hospital restrooms—this was her most pressing concern at the time. Building on this success, I now have a small number of patients to navigate through their cancer journeys, under advisement of my preceptors.

During this early stage, I’ve become aware that, running parallel to my orientation, a shadow orientation is also occurring.

This umbral orientation doesn’t come, like its more tangible counterpart, with a sheath of paperwork with competencies to perform or checklists to mark off. But it’s just as real. Awareness of shadow orientation develops on an intuitive level. While this experience is difficult to describe in words, it feels familiar.

Shadow orientations happen to everyone. Nearly 30 years and several nursing jobs since that first one, I’m acutely aware of the importance of a good first impression. Fortunately, this particular orientation of mine is going smoothly, but here are some observations based on past experiences.

Shadow orientation is present when you meet a staff member who makes it known this is her desk, her chair, her phone—maybe not in words, but with a look and a click of her tongue as she makes a great show of finding somewhere else to sit, despite your offer to give up the seat.

It’s happening when a physician won’t speak to you directly about your patient, instead giving his orders to the charge nurse, because you’re new. When you question it, she explains, “It takes him a long time to trust new nurses.” But she does nothing to facilitate an introduction between you.

Another example: There’s much discussion about working relationships between nurses and physicians, but little is said about the interactions between nurses and ancillary staff, such as respiratory therapists, X-ray technicians, phlebotomists, or unit secretaries. Each play important roles in patient care, but negotiating workflow can be a source of friction, depending on the individual’s level of professionalism.

I’m only partially joking when I advise striving for a good working relationship with the unit secretary. She or he knows who to call for a vacant bed, the phone and fax numbers you need, and how to make the office machines work. Even now, I can manage a patient safely on a ventilator, but am nearly helpless when the copier machine doesn’t work.

Developing beneficial working relationships is part of a successful nursing orientation. If you’re lucky, your preceptor is explaining the nuances.

Slipups, of course, whether big or small, set you up negatively in the culture of any given unit. As a newly graduated nurse in her first job, I made the most awkward mistake possible: I showed up 12 hours late for my first orientation shift. While the fault was ultimately mine, the shadowy part of it is that I had been hired to work 12-hour nights, the instructions had been given over the phone, and there was no new employee orientation at the time. Somehow, the fact that I would be scheduled on day shift for the first two weeks of orientation escaped me.

The nurse supervising the unit was not amused with this misunderstanding and sent me home when I showed up eager to start at 1900 instead of 0700. Our relationship was irreparably damaged, and stayed so for the entire time we were colleagues. In this way, though the example is perhaps extreme, I failed my first shadow orientation.

A wise nurse once said, during a discussion about orientations, “You don’t know if you’re swimming with fish or sharks until there’s blood in the water.” Orientations are a little like that: move forward with confidence, but keep your eyes and ears open.

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2016-11-21T13:02:45+00:00 March 30th, 2015|career, Nursing, nursing perspective|4 Comments

About the Author:

Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, finds inspiration where science, humanity, and art converge, creating compelling images as both a writer and a painter. She is the author of, and also blogs frequently for and, the blog of the American Journal of Nursing (AJN).


  1. mamaantis February 25, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    I appreciate this blog post with almost two-years under my nursing belt. I am often mistaken for a seasoned nurse by my colleagues, even though I just graduated two years ago in May. I have had doctors and other nurses “call me out” on things that only come with years of experience, but I have also had wonderful preceptors who have made no assumptions about my level of experience. Either way, we must be mindful of the varying degrees of competency (despite the checklists). And the part about ancillary staff is so critical: I see nurses treat phlebotomist and technicians like rubbish; they are critical components to our patient care. I also add, LOVE your CNAs… they often know the most intimate things regarding your patients.

  2. Annabelle marcaifa February 25, 2016 at 11:14 am

    Yes it usually happened during the Orientation Program in the floor..this is what we called Silo mentality..we can prevent this by developing a preceptor evaluation ..the new nurse will going to evaluate her preceptor about his or her effectiveness and to be submitted to the nursing office

  3. Sharon Ezzell March 31, 2015 at 8:51 am

    You call it shadow orientation, I call it nurse hazing. Either way, shadow orientation runs the risk of turning into lateral violence if left unchecked. Why do nurses eat their young instead of lifting them up? I will never understand this phenomena.

  4. Big Red Carpet Nurse March 30, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    The current nursing model assumes tgs t new grads will not be competent, just educated and trainable. Older nurses generally started out with a very different assumption, based on far less education and far more practical training in school. It leads to hostility and misunderstandings, entirely not new grads’ fault but certainly their problem.

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