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How Labs Can Compete For, and Win, Top Talent

The influence of unique offerings that make your lab an attractive place to work

When asking budding scientists, analysts, researchers, and their peers where they dream of working, some of their first responses might be well-known organizations such as P&G, the Mayo Clinic, or a large government research campus like Argonne National Lab. But it’s not necessarily because they have the best employer brand. All labs started unknown and had to build a reputation, a pattern of success in their industry, and a positive experience for those benefitting from the products, service, or knowledge they offer. All labs, no matter their size, go through a version of this with hopes of winning more clients and staff, and earning more loyalty for their “brand” than the competition. To be successful, organizations must show how they are different and must deliver on the expectations they set. 

When your lab team is hiring, the same principles apply. You need to attract candidates, offer something they want and need, and do something better than your competitors. If your facility has a smaller physical footprint, does not get mentioned in school curriculums, or mentioned in the media often, it can be a bigger challenge to try to compete with large “household names” that attract thousands of candidates eager to get a big name on their resume. It can be daunting at times—competition is steep, and top talent has a lot of choice in the market—but it is not hopeless.

A quality manager of research and development at a biotech research company shared their experience with Lab Manager: “I used to require that my candidates for most roles in the lab came from a background working with FDA cleared/approved assays, but once I eliminated that requirement, I greatly expanded my candidate pool.” There are many realizations that can be beneficial when you get outside of arbitrary or archaic hiring “rules” and re-think what top employees want in their employer and environment today. While your talent acquisition function must focus on intentional planning and setting expectations for what you can offer candidates (your “employer brand”), you as the leader of the lab have an important role to play as well. Here are four ways that lab managers can help lesser-known organizations be more attractive to candidates.

1. Find your target market

It’s important to realize that not everyone wants to work for a big, splashy organization, or will come with set qualifications the big names ask for. Job location, career development, flexibility, training and certification support, and workplace culture may be areas in which you easily compete against more well-known employer brands. Looking to hire your talent from your competitors because you assume they will require less training or understand what their role is will limit a huge number of candidates and force you to pay more than market rates, or not be able to lure candidates away for a similar work experience. 

When recruiters reach out to passive candidates who have some like-skills, but show the potential to learn and grow, the target market becomes much bigger and doesn’t force wage wars. You should also be looking for people with passion for the work. How amazing it is to see your colleagues’ eyes light up when they figure out something new? If you don’t see this spark when interviewing, they likely aren’t your target market because they will not be excited about the work your lab is doing. It may not result in hundreds of applicants, but it will connect in meaningful ways to your target market—people to aspire to reach your level of success.

2. Differentiate what you offer

When three leaders of different types of labs were asked, “aside from monetary value, what unique employee offering are you most proud of?” their responses were mostly tied to the purpose and mission of the work itself. Some key themes included working as a team toward a meaningful goal, mentoring and growth programs, and the opportunity to do high-quality work. None of them started with high salaries or fancy lab coats. Selling the culture you have intentionally built to create your workplace, including access to your time, might be your golden differentiator. It’s important that you clearly understand what you can offer and are able to sell these non-tangible elements that convince candidates that your company can do more for their career than any other. 

3. Create a great candidate experience

Training recruiters and hiring managers is important in delivering a great candidate experience. If you are going to compete in the market for top talent, every touchpoint a candidate has with your organization is a chance to convince them that your lab is the better place to grow their career. Effective screening and interviewing, keeping candidates informed at every step of the process, and following up quickly all contribute to a positive candidate experience. 

While some lab work is quite methodical and process-driven, you don’t have to embody the work personally. Take the time and opportunity to show some humor, ask people about their interest and passion for the work, and give them the space to light up. Then make sure you are following up. Whether you are going to move to an offer or pass on the candidate, always be clear, follow through, and be an ambassador for your employer brand. 

4. Manage expectations for all

Less recognized employer brands will face some challenges that are unavoidable—it’s important to be aware of this fact when hiring. It may take longer to find candidates, or for your team to come up with their strategic talent acquisition plan. You need to be clear with your hiring teams that you want them to drive the process and give you a consultative approach instead of throwing every candidate in front of you. You may need to be clear that every candidate must be closed properly, even if you didn’t want to move forward with them. 

Recognize that talent may not stay for the long term

With candidates, you may have to approach them for the short term. For example, you may expect that they will only stay at your company for a year or two before moving on, or that many of your candidates will come from employee referrals. You may have to hire while keeping a project confidential or invest more time selling your company to candidates and explaining what your company does. It’s a challenge, but it is helpful to share your awareness of this fact and to be content with a faster employee life cycle. Even if your alumni pool grows faster than you expected, if every employee who leaves your company goes on to tell what a positive experience they had, you’re still winning.   

As your lab competes for talent, remember that Goliath didn’t win against David even though he was the heavy favorite. Household name labs may be very valuable and attract a lot of attention, but it is not the same as an employer brand, which can tell a story that is the polar opposite. There is often a halo-effect in this regard—if you love the products a company makes, or trust the research they come out with most, you assume that company is an amazing place to work. Candidates who use employer ratings/reviews websites to research what a company culture might be like may quickly come to see that some of their favorite brands have well-documented toxic work cultures, and horrible leaders who are called out by name. And these websites are populated by current employees, so there is no consumer brand that can counter a pattern of bad workplace experiences. It is not your place to reveal that to candidates, but it is your opportunity to capitalize on selling your lesser-known brand that will create a great place to work, and your personal commitment to making sure a positive workplace culture comes to life.  

You want the best talent for your lab, and to make it the best place for top talent to learn, grow, contribute, and move your mission forward. It’s OK to hire for the short term and become a company that launches careers into bigger companies or a more-known employer brand. It’s OK to spend more time one-on-one with candidates and employees building personal relationships. It’s OK to not be the biggest fish in the pond and still want great talent. You can support your talent acquisition team in their mandate to find candidates with the skills you need without having to double salaries or pay more than you can budget. You may need to follow a new path or fish with new bait, but there are great candidates out there for every company. The best (and perhaps secret) recruiter tool in front of many labs is understanding the delight your employees get from your products, work environment, and the humans working around them, which creates a different experience for candidates and lures them in.

Jeremy Eskenazi, SHRM-SCP

Jeremy Eskenazi, SHRM-SCP, is the founder of Riviera Advisors, a boutique talent acquisition optimization consulting firm. Riviera Advisors does not headhunt—it specializes in recruitment training and strategy consulting, helping global HR leaders transform how they attract top talent. From best practice recruiting, to improving speed to hire, to candidate experience, Riviera Advisors is a helpful place for strategic talent advisors.