Lab managers are tasked with running the day-to-day operations of their respective laboratories—from environmental and forensics to medical labs and everything else along the spectrum. To ensure that procedures are running at optimal levels, those in charge of labs need a knowledgeable and dedicated team that can handle the variety of tasks unique to each organization.
Although much of the job of hiring is often left to the human resources (HR) departments of many organizations and independent labs, managers are key in assembling staff members who would be viable members of their laboratory community. Therefore, a manager’s role cannot be understated when it comes to hiring, training, supervising, and evaluating employees. And it’s important for those running labs to coordinate with the higherups and HR staff in finding and training team members who will enhance the work environment.
“We work very hard on developing a team mentality where everyone has the same interests in doing their best,” says Maya Murshak, chief executive officer at Merit Laboratories Inc. in East Lansing, Michigan. Merit is a Women’s Business Enterprise-certified and accredited environmental laboratory that’s been serving clients for more than 30 years, with work that involves superfund sites and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act waste and permit monitoring for environmental analyses in drinking water, groundwater, wastewater, soil, waste, consumer products, and air.
Finding and evaluating the best fit
The cost of a bad hire is more than just an employee’s salary—it also costs the lab training time, resources, and productivity, which, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, is an additional 30 percent of a hire’s earnings.
To find competent and committed employees, lab managers look for candidates in every corner of the industry. “We are located very close to Michigan State University and have had great success hiring graduating students when we need new analysts or project managers,” Murshak says.
Others might look for talent at networking events, such as during industry conferences and local training events, or use traditional or newer media to reach potential candidates.
Kim Rakoski, drinking water project manager at PDC Laboratories Inc. in Peoria, Illinois, explains that when a position opens up at her lab, it’s first posted internally and on the PDC website. “We also use social media such as Indeed, Monster, and LinkedIn along with recruiting from local universities,” she says.
Once a list of candidates is put together, managers typically evaluate potential hires on paper. As a candidate is deemed viable, he or she moves further up the list, and more lab staff often become involved in the hiring process to ensure that person is a good fit for all parties involved.
“Initially, we look at their resumes and make sure that the technical capabilities are there,” Murshak says. “Once they have an interview with our human resources director, I meet with a potential candidate and ask about their wishes and what they are looking for. Then I tell them about our business and all the pros and cons. I try not to hold back. If, after the interview, both parties are still interested, we introduce them to the team that will work the closest with them. If that team approves, we make an offer.”
Rakoski’s process is similar in evaluating not just the candidate’s technical and scientific expertise, but also their softer and more nuanced capabilities and qualities, including how they would fit into the culture of the organization.
“We sit and talk to the candidates during the interview versus [going through] the standard interview questions,” she says of herself, the department manager, project managers, and department supervisors, all of whom are involved in the evaluation process. “We use those [interview questions] as well but as more of an opener for casual discussion.” To ensure a candidate’s viability, more than one department at her organization conducts many of the analyst interviews at the same time.
Balance of talent
Part of finding the right candidate is ensuring there’s a balance of talent and point of view within the staff ’s composition. That means it’s vital to provide opportunities to candidates from different backgrounds and to promote diversity, a task that many managers take seriously when it comes to hiring.
“PDC is an equal opportunity employer, and if a candidate is a right fit for the job they are hired,” Rakoski says. “We did have an issue where the new hires in one department were not blending well with the work group and it was suggested that maybe they should consider hiring someone of the opposite sex to balance things out a bit.”
As fate would have it, the position’s only applicants turned out to be of the suggested gender, she explains. However, for PDC, the ideal candidate is the one who “can keep up and do an excellent job.”
Similarly, Murshak’s team tries to find the best talent, a good example of which is their project management team. “For the first 20 years, it was all females,” she says. “Then both of our females left to live outside East Lansing. Both left on very good terms and I consider them good friends. When the two positions opened up, the best two candidates were male. Our project management team was run for a few years by two fantastic guys.”
“When analytical opportunities came up, one of the guys filled the laboratory position and the other, the marketing position,” Murshak adds. “We hired two women to fill the project management spots, and they are working out excellently.”
And though both labs have females in leadership roles, neither are a gender-oriented organization, meaning they make no extraordinary efforts to promote females or males within the laboratory and instead focus on finding the best person for every position.
“We value good character, education, and fit with our company views,” Murshak says.
However, some of the highest positions—CEO and technical director, QA officer and safety officer, project managers, HR director, accountant, metals and inorganic senior analysts—within the laboratory happen to be filled by female employees. “They have all earned their positions and I am very proud of the work they do for Merit,” she adds.
Boarding and training
The hiring of a new employee is just the beginning of the process of incorporating an individual into the culture and workflow of a lab. Depending on a lab’s position and needs, every manager has his or her process of ensuring new hires feel comfortable with the work and values of the organization.
At PDC, all analysts and employees first receive training in ethics, general safety, chemical safety, and standard operating procedures (SOPs) from the operations and HR departments. New hires are also provided with, and asked to sign, confidentiality agreements.
“Once that’s completed, then the department supervisor and fellow analysts train the new analyst on the day-to-day routines,” Rakoski says. “For a project manager [PM], the outgoing PM will do as much training as possible before they leave the position, and training continues with SOPs, manuals, and help from fellow PMs.”
Similarly, Murshak’s lab starts the new hires with training in safety and industrial hygiene conducted by a safety officer. Next, new employees become familiar with the quality assurance (QA)/quality control manual and any SOPs that are applicable. They then are asked to read and sign a training statement attesting that they have read the documents provided by the QA officer.
The new analyst shadows a lead analyst for a week. Then the new analyst is shadowed by the training analyst and/or the director of the department and analyzes seven control samples to demonstrate his or her capability, which is reviewed by the director of the department and the QA officer. Finally, the QA officer gives the new hire a peer review and a 10 percent check on the analyzed raw data.
“We don’t necessarily have a lot of hierarchy, but we have a lot of training and/or cross-training, and we welcome input and always are open to ideas and thoughts about how to make things more efficient and better,” Murshak says.
Once the right employee is integrated into a laboratory structure, each manager has his or her way of overseeing employee progress. For some, constant supervision works best; for others, it’s trusting that all the training and initial scrutiny that went into picking a team member means that the manager can be more hands-off.
“Merit Laboratories is unique in that we try to not micromanage,” Murshak says. “We are hands-on when they need us and hands-off when they are performing well.”
PDC’s style is more hands-on, but not in a way that feels like intervening. “Everyday supervision is more like a partnership,” Rakoski explains. “We work hand in hand with each other and other departments.”
Both teams find that a large part of effective supervision is evaluation. For PDC, every year, in addition to having a review by their supervisors, employees review their own performances. As it turns out, the employees are harder on themselves in evaluations than their supervisors are.
At Murshak’s lab, all new employees are reviewed at the three-month mark and evaluated on performance and attention to detail. Furthermore, “We talk to their peers, and we ask for feedback from the new employee as well,” Murshak says. “After that, we try to review everyone annually. These reviews are mostly informal. But formal reviews are done when needed.”
For managers, assembling and training a strong crew is not just to ensure the company runs well, it’s also to ensure the organization can continue to grow into a strong future. When a robust staff contributes to the organization and is invested to stay and work toward a common goal, the lab will have a strong skill set that will allow it to be on a path to growth even as other factors in the industry change.
An example of this is Murshak’s lab, where much of her staff has been at the company for more than a decade and many senior staff members for more than 20 years.
“I was there when the company was born and have been with the lab through undergraduate and graduate school in chemical engineering,” she says. “I came back to build and evolve our laboratory to have the best service and technically the best quality laboratory.”
In business for more than three decades, Murshak’s lab has had its share of hardships, but because of a solid staff—the organization’s backbone— Merit always kept growing and is continually moving forward.
“We crawled out of bad economies by believing in what we are doing and working together through the tough times, and most of all, servicing our clients and their needs,” Murshak says. “I am very fortunate to have a great team filled with smart, loyal, honest employees [who] care about our vision and are committed to what we do.”