How Lapses in Etiquette Can Devastate a Lab's Morale, Productivity and Business Success

Many lab managers still remember them from their student days—a handful of hastily stapled printouts sternly titled “Laboratory etiquette—Acceptable standards of conduct.” Those were rules to live by, and the smallest violation landed a budding laboratory scientist in front of the ticked-off chief instructor. Many years later, for most lab managers, these rules are alive and well, and perhaps a bit more appreciated. They essentially lay out the guidelines for how things are done in labs in every industry—and they are growing in complexity and sophistication.

At its most generic, laboratory etiquette describes the preferred if not required conduct in the laboratory. In reality, however, its relevance could reach way beyond such strictly pedestrian concerns. According to Alaina Levine, an internationally known career development consultant for scientists and engineers, while skills and capabilities are essential, etiquette and manners are important, too. Levine, who is also a noted science writer, states that proper etiquette projects commendable qualities such as professionalism, intelligence, respectability, industriousness and talent.

Today, lab etiquette occupies rapidly evolving territory. The United States attracts scientists from all around the world and, as a result, technologists with different training and practice norms and from disparate cultures work side by side in laboratories across the country. Workforces in most labs now encompass a broad spectrum of ages and have solid gender representation. The labs themselves are changing into more open, multidisciplinary operations, with greater emphasis on mobility and modularity. A relentless onslaught of new technologies has dramatically changed work-related communications. On top of that, the invasion of personal communications and entertainment devices has been embraced enthusiastically by some lab staffers, while others view them as monumental annoyances.

A cursory literature search, discussions with lab directors and consultants, and a webinar/discussion conducted by Lab Manager Magazine unearthed a variety of opinions and positions about etiquette in the laboratory. They range from everyday rudeness and inconsiderate behavior to profound questions that may merit adjustments in overall lab policies. Most labs—from those in colleges to others situated in clinical and industrial settings—have rules that essentially forbid food, drink and inappropriate cell phone use and, of course, practices such as smoking on the premises. These rules of etiquette are guided by the need for laboratory personnel to conduct themselves in a businesslike manner. Christina Mastromatteo, Ph.D., senior analytical chemist with The Lubrizol Corporation, sees etiquette in the laboratory as “a means of getting the job done professionally, following the rules of professional conduct yourself, and not hindering the work of others—in effect, being professional for the benefit of all.”

Laboratories have clear rules on the labeling and handling of chemicals and reagents and on the maintenance of clean work areas. Clinical lab settings have detailed rules and instructions about the disposal of materials, such as used surgical gloves, needles and biological tissue. In some cases the penalties for noncompliance, including hefty fines, are clearly indicated. “With the exception of the gloves, all those are included in our lab rules,” says Maryann McDermott-Jones, Ph.D., undergraduate laboratory supervisor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Maryland. “To be practical about it, large numbers of students view their introductory lab course as a hoop they have to jump through. That seems shortsighted to me, but it is a practical reality,”

“Defining and strictly enforcing safety regulations are high priorities for us. One of the first things we do at the start of each semester is let students know what safety criteria they will be responsible for—and we test them on those,” says McDermott-Jones. “We teach students to be honest in how they deal with the results of experiments. We stress that this process is heavily reliant on professional ethics and behavior and academic and intellectual integrity,” she adds, demonstrating that etiquette is often interpreted as overlapping with ethics.

Overall, there seems to be a solid propensity to link etiquette to safety, efficiency, productivity and, of course, ethics. Etiquette is generally viewed as a key component in the ability to work well with others, and in the maintenance of harmonious professional relationships in the lab. Acutely aware of this, educators try to inculcate the importance of proper etiquette at the earliest opportunity

Consideration for others ranks high in the lab etiquette book. When engaged in laboratory activities, punctuality is very important and plays a key role in ensuring that common areas that must be scheduled and shared are used efficiently and smoothly. In addition, proper usage and respect for all equipment, user rosters and maintenance schedules are critical. It is considered an egregious error to interfere with ongoing experiments set up by fellow lab workers. Included in the discussion on laboratory etiquette is appropriate behavior in the performance of an experiment. Rules of etiquette also address the key issues involved in recording the outcome of an investigation.

“Etiquette seems to be a generic component that keeps all the other pieces working together—whether it is in the form of written or unwritten rules. Without proper etiquette, entire systems can go adrift, which can be a tremendous time waster in the end,” says Dr. Mastromatteo.

She says that with the advent of Lean Six Sigma, there is a lot more cross training in the laboratory workspace, which creates a friendlier environment but increases the workload for each individual. This has almost become the norm for a number of laboratories as they grapple with finding ways to deal with this tough economic period. “Lean systems have reduced the number of people in analytical labs, and there is more sharing of tools and systems, which makes proper etiquette all the more important,” she says.

A number of lab managers engaged in the rigor of their technical tasks opted not to discuss the question of etiquette with us. Part of the reason is that for many professional managers, good etiquette is a given—people simply internalize the rules and over time they conduct themselves well naturally. Rules of etiquette are nice to have but, at the end of the day, the good workers follow them reflexively, they believe. Many labs are fortunate; they attract high-quality professional staff and do not need to spend much time on niceties like etiquette.

Lapses in etiquette, however, can be devastating to morale and may have other profound implications. They may translate into workers not receiving due recognition for their work—such as not being named as an author of record on a poster presentation or peer-reviewed publication, despite substantial contributions to the research effort. This has the effect of denying well-deserved credit or accolades because someone, such as a team leader, opted not to extend the usual courtesy (etiquette) to another contributor. This kind of conduct could lead to financial consequences as well, and even legal action—for example, when an etiquette-challenged research leader decides not to include the name of a key technical contributor on a patent.

Dr. Henry Nowicki, president at PACS Testing, Consulting and Training, deals with a large number of laboratory managers and their staff in a number of capacities. In his training activities, which include courses in chromatography, mass spectroscopy and related areas, he interacts directly with laboratory personnel of all stripes. To him, “Etiquette represents a state in which individuals need to be conscientious. They need to think and present themselves in a manner that enables them to get their assigned tasks done and advance their career.”

For Nowicki, this translates first into some basics: “They should leave work areas a bit cleaner than when they started. They need to be conscientious—reorder or bring to the appropriate person’s attention that certain supplies are running low and should be replenished. There is a tremendous need to be courteous and tactful because this makes for smoother, safer operations and a cooperative, well-functioning environment.”

Nowicki unhesitatingly states that in an environment with good etiquette, efficiency and productivity will increase. “When everyone knows that everything has its place, that they need to return tools and reagents to their proper storage areas, and that they must ensure that all instruments are properly calibrated and functioning at top form, and they engage in courteous and effective communications, productivity will increase for the whole group.”

“Etiquette benefits from each person setting a good example. A key part of this entails informing others tactfully and courteously about their shortcomings. If these weaknesses are not pointed out to them, they may continue to be unaware of the problem. Managers and others in leadership positions should take care to show a suboptimal producer that there are attractive potential benefits associated with improving, and help that person work through a plan of corrective action,” says Nowicki.

Turning to the question of why there seems to be heightened interest in etiquette today, Nowicki says, “We are operating at a faster pace now and with greater stress. A lot of our communications have migrated to the email format, and we are expected to answer them by the next day, or at least within 24 hours.

“Headcounts have been reduced in many laboratories, and workers are expected to do more and different kinds of work compared to years ago. This creates stress, and in stressful situations it is easy to ignore proper etiquette and good manners and slide into a harsh work environment.”

To ensure harmony in an environment that consciously tries to maintain proper etiquette, Nowicki believes that it is important to apologize for impolite conduct to other workers as well as to provide positive feedback and acknowledgement of good performance. If managers do not convey client satisfaction to their subordinates, the workers will not know that their work has been commended. In today’s economic environment, where it is harder for companies to offer greater monetary rewards, such compliments are all the more necessary, according to Nowicki.

On the role of generational differences on etiquette, Nowicki says there has been an agelong tendency for older generations to view the younger ones as lacking in commitment and as less industrious. “This is quite natural, but I do see differences in today’s young lab workers. They are not as willing to do overtime or work on weekends. They want their free time, and seem to have stronger social connections to certain community activities, because of their more recent involvement with them than the older generation.

“Of course, they always seem plugged into their electronic gear. This is to be expected because our technology is different, expectations are different, and society is much faster-paced now. There is some concern, however, because they spend a relatively large amount of money on electronics compared to their earnings—and the electronics they carry around could interfere with their productivity.”

Cultural differences are real, and cultural diversity is increasing in our labs compared to the past. According to Nowicki, the answer is greater tolerance and the belief that it is desirable for people from all cultures to learn more about each other.

Management can play a key role in the fostering of proper etiquette writ broadly, according to Nowicki. He says that in his experience, managers fit into two categories— those who assign tasks and leave workers alone with very little structure, and those who micro-manage. “What is needed is something in between. Managers need to figure out which worker needs what kind of supervision. This will generate better feedback and lead to overall harmony and greater productivity.”

“We need to do everything we can to improve productivity as a nation. Good etiquette leads to self-improvement and opens up the possibility to make us better and more productive on a regular basis.”

Bernard Tulsi is a freelance writer based in Newark, Del. He may be contacted at btulsi@comcast.net or 302-266-6420.