Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Effective Laboratory Onboarding

An ongoing conversation that goes way beyond first-week orientation.

by Bernard B. Tulsi
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Onboarding is a series of initial steps aimed at helping new workers become integrated into the laboratory workforce. While this process appears deceptively simple, complete with cordial first-day introductions and nice team lunches, when not executed adeptly, onboarding commonly fails to deliver on a central objective: the retention of good workers.

Of necessity, onboarding incorporates a number of “the way things are done here” routine operational details, including human resources (HR) procedures or how to access information repositories or order new supplies, much of which is provided via canned orientation presentations, the corporate intranet, or both. Sometimes, attempts are made to discuss the prevailing corporate culture and explain where new workers’ roles may be situated in the overall schema.

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While these are important features typically prominent in HR playbooks, the most urgent corporate goal now is to use onboarding as an effective employee retention tool. To accomplish this, onboarding must be perceived as an “ongoing conversation” and not just a week or two of front-end induction and orientation, according to Dr. Edward G. Verlander, chairman, Verlander, Wang & Co., LLC, who provides consulting services and training in leadership, change management, and professional development.

Proper onboarding remains urgent, says Verlander, who adds, “Employee retention is critical for managing and lowering operational costs in the whole process of finding, hiring, placing, promoting, and rewarding workers. If you can keep good people around longer, that will, in fact, lower costs.”

Amid the staffing tumult in the lab sector, exacerbated by waves of consolidation and outsourcing to lower-cost operations overseas, “the urgency is as great today as it has ever been,” he adds.

“There is probably a greater emphasis today to move to further lab consolidations,” says Dr. Martin Evans, former associate director of the Public Health Laboratory of the City of New York and a member of the Board for Clinical Laboratory Technology of the New York State Department of Education. The focus of these consolidations is to improve the return on investment and reduce the unit cost of testing as well as turnaround time.

The goal of consolidation is to become “faster, bigger, better, and cheaper, and much of the success of this approach depends on the ability to attract and retain good people,” Verlander says.

Despite the current higher unemployment rate in the U.S., Evans says, “There is still what many term a crisis in employment in laboratory staffing,” alluding to the difficulties in recruiting qualified lab staff.

“If you look at the staff needs projections in many lab disciplines, the current training systems cannot match those needs over the next ten years,” says Evans. The problem is compounded by the “out flux” of retiring baby boomers. Statistics from the Association of Public Health Laboratories indicate that 15 to 50 percent of all laboratory personnel are slated to retire within the next ten years. “In light of this, it becomes really important to retain the people you have,” says Evans.

He adds, “So the question really becomes, when you have good people, how do you keep them?” Evans cites several ways to keep lab personnel interested and motivated. These include sending staffers to national scientific meetings, cross-training them, and publicly acknowledging and recognizing their work. He explains that in cases when managers cannot increase salaries, sending workers to such meetings could be a good way to make their lives more interesting in the workplace. Cross-training also has that effect, “while increasing workers’ future viability and employability, because it gives them a broader range of capability and experience.” As for employee recognition programs, he says, “If you can’t pay them more, at least you can publicly thank your workers.”

There are three main categories among the general principles for laboratory personnel motivation, Verlander says. “People are motivated and can be retained when they work with people they respect and like and enjoy being with.” Since the workplace is such a social environment, “the quality of the people you bring in is important,” he adds.

He says the work itself is a key motivator. “Are workers allowed to perform the tasks they were trained or licensed to do? And is it challenging enough for them so that over time they can grow and develop?”

The third category is the culture of the laboratory enterprise. “Management must give employees a voice in how the laboratory is run and in decisions that affect the people in the workplace,” Verlander says.

Turning to the interests of the newest workforce entrants, Verlander says, “With the newest generation of employees going into the labs, given their great interest in technology and what that leads to in terms of social media networking, it is clear that the onboarding process could be facilitated if the networking aspects of these young peoples’ interests could be capitalized on.

“These new employees will be naturally interested in the social aspects of the work environment so that they can socialize and network with other people in their laboratory workplace. Management that encourages this will increase the likelihood of retention,” Verlander says.

But changing the culture in the laboratory organization will require a concerted effort. Evans says, “Most of management tends to be old-school in their values, and there has been little effort on the part of senior managers to adjust, fully interact and engage with, and capture and maintain the interest of the young, newer generation of employees coming in.”

Verlander notes that in general “there is a natural tension in the management of laboratories that is driven by control and safety versus the empowerment of people. Such tension between control and empowerment is an important factor, one that requires management to carefully think through the kind of organizational style and culture it wishes to foster in the workplace.”

He concedes that allowing for both is a substantial challenge. “Labs typically deal with sensitive work, sometimes highly toxic substances, and issues that impact the lives of people. They need to be safe, well managed, and efficient. They must be stable, orderly, and controlled, and yet they also need a culture and environment that is also organic, changing, and learning over time.”

Evans notes that in the midst of large-scale and rapid consolidation, “Little attention is paid to culture and core values. Even if they are thought about, they are often secondary or tertiary matters. The greater focus is always on efficiency of utilization, consolidation of computer systems, and other technical and financial issues; not much attention is paid to culture, and that is a mistake.”

Considering the potential consequences of not getting onboarding right, Verlander says, “You may have workers joining a lab organization and after a while starting to seriously question their decision.” He says that to overcome this, “People need to feel connected and develop an identity with the place, and those who raise such questions may not be getting the personal attention they need and want.”

He says that when the traditional onboarding process is computer-driven it is not nearly as effective as the face-to-face version. Without such personal interaction, “there could be a number of unanswered questions that may lead to uncertainty, confusion, and ambiguities.”

Evans says there are many ways to get onboarding right. “When new workers come in the door, take the time to get to know them, establish a relationship, and really care— and show that you care—about them.” Research data suggests the main reason people choose to stay in their jobs involves the relationship they have with their boss, he adds.

Verlander concurs. “The manager must pay attention to the psychological contract that new employees have joining an organization. By this I do not mean the forms they fill out in the HR department.” The psychological contract is “the identity formation process,” he explains.

“Fundamentally, this is the assessment that employees make about what they are giving to an organization in time, expertise, ideas, work, labor, and effort in relationship to being cared for, looked after, and networked by the organization—not only in terms of having a good job but also opportunities for promotion and, over time, a worthwhile, paying career,” Verlander says.

The relationship between what the employee offers the organization and the available reward structure forges that psychological contract. “Managers must absolutely be careful about what they say in this process; they must make sure that they are managing expectations and not overpromising and under delivering.”

He says that over time, disruptions can occur, such as when pay increases and training opportunities do not materialize. “This could lead to distortions in the psychological contract and create problems with morale, motivation, and productivity.”

Evans notes that in general laboratory managers and supervisors, whose emphasis is on technical training and expertise, are not trained in the area of employee relationships. There is a need for managers to show they care. “Give your employees a comprehensive performance review each year, which is typically a requirement. Really sit with them and say, ‘What do you want to do this year? How can we work on this together?’

“When the supervisor and employee sign the review, that’s really a contract. There is a need to make it substantive, honor it, and check in and review it periodically, perhaps monthly,” says Evans.

Verlander says that the review process is essential. “Management must think through and deploy a performance management system, which involves setting up specific performance goals and objectives with the employees, irrespective of their roles in the lab.”

He adds that management must monitor and track employees’ progress and ensure that the resources are in place to enable the employee to perform the expected task. Supervisors and managers must coach new employees, providing guidance, help and support, new skills,and additional instruction aimed at helping them overcome any knowledge and performance deficiencies.

Onboarding is an ongoing conversation where managers discuss employees; inform and give them ideas about operations, missions, strategies, forthcoming changes, new rules, procedures, standards, and requirements; and how such changes may impact the organization and staff, according to Verlander.

He says during the initial onboarding employees are more receptive and willing to learn, but interest starts to wane as work becomes routine, more predictable, and well-understood. “Management must supply the learning and ensure that an ongoing conversation takes place.”

Turning to likely future trends, Verlander says, “From a new employee standpoint, the incoming generation of new technicians in labs want an environment that is more interactive, conversational, and informal, so that they can have a voice that management must respond to.”

“Social networking may be the avenue that helps to get to that—that is a part of the new generation’s world, and they want that experience on the job.”