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Hiring the Best

“If we don't get the people thing right, we lose; it is the most important thing in all of business,” said Jack Welch, retired CEO of General Electric Company, who was named “Manager of the Century” in 1999 by Fortune Magazine.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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“If we don't get the people thing right, we lose; it is the most important thing in all of business,” said Jack Welch, retired CEO of General Electric Company, who was named “Manager of the Century” in 1999 by Fortune Magazine. Getting the people thing right begins with hiring the best individuals, the high-impact players. The purpose of the entire hiring process—reviewing candidates’ application materials, talking to their references and engaging in a series of interviews with them—is to hire high-impact individuals to work in your laboratory. Their knowledge, skills and work habits make them exceptionally productive. Of course, lab managers always want to hire new employees who have these attributes. They are the ones who will begin to contribute both quickly and significantly to the development of new products and processes and supply high-quality customer support. They represent the future of the laboratory.

Lab managers need to design their hiring process around determining which job candidates will be high-impact players if hired. They need to understand how to define job positions and how best to generate a job applicant pool and assess candidates. They need to understand how to make job offers. Newly appointed lab managers, in particular, often need mentoring and advice on how to do this.

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What can lab managers do to help ensure that staff members they hire will rapidly become high-impact players?

Look for problem solvers

The best indicator of future performance is past performance. Look for job candidates who have been outstanding problem solvers in previous jobs or in their academic work. Look for evidence of this when reviewing résumés and discussing candidates with their references. Published journal articles, patents and presentations at conferences can also suggest which candidates will be high-impact players. However, using journal articles, patents and presentations requires more than just counting how many a candidate produced. It also means considering the journal in which a technical paper is published. High-quality journals tend to publish higher-impact papers than less respected journals. Review the conclusions section of research papers. If job candidates hold U.S. patents, ask them why one of the major patent claims is important. They may be constrained from saying much because their current or former employer may regard development and commercialization plans as proprietary.

During interviews, ask candidates for examples of their problem-solving skills. Listen closely to their answers. When they provide these examples, ask additional questions to determine what impact their results had in terms of commercializing new products or processes, or increasing a previous employer’s business. Ask graduate students and post-docs what insights their findings are providing in terms of solving scientific problems.

Often, the hunt for new staff members who will have both a rapid and significant effect on productivity means hiring experienced people. Industrial experience can hone problem-solving skills while providing knowledge of how to get things done in an industrial work environment. So, while experienced staff members can cost more, they are often worth the extra money.

However, one has to consider the context in which experienced job candidates achieved their high-impact accomplishments. For example, a job candidate who worked for an established drug company with a highly structured environment may be less productive in the freewheeling laboratory environment of a start-up firm. Conversely, the opposite may also be true. It is usually difficult to determine the extent to which a candidate’s work environment influenced his or her activity. However, it is often worth making the effort. Asking questions about what the candidate liked most and least about the previous employer’s work environment helps you explore this issue.

Look for flexibility

In addition to looking for outstanding problem solvers, lab managers should look for candidates with other skills and accomplishments. For example, experienced researchers often have firsthand experience with the process of recognizing inventions and working with patent attorneys to obtain U.S. patents. Newly-hired, experienced researchers could serve as mentors working with younger coworkers, educating them about the patenting process from the researcher’s perspective. Experienced new hires often begin making solid contributions faster than inexperienced new hires with little or no experience in industrial laboratory work environments.

Aim for an age mix when hiring new employees. One doesn’t want to hire only experienced employees or only new graduates. Recent graduates often bring with them knowledge of and experience with new synthesis methods and instrumental analysis techniques. Combining these attributes with the skills and perspectives of experienced staff members can create a synergistic mix that increases productivity. Having seasoned coworkers as mentors can reduce the time younger new hires need to get up to speed.

Sometimes, but not always, younger job candidates have better or broader computer skills than older laboratory staff members. On the other hand, some of their soft skills—such as written communication, oral communication and time management—are often less developed and they can benefit from mentoring by older, more skilled colleagues. Thus, having an age mix can improve productivity through knowledge transfer among lab employees.

Communication skills

Oral and written communication skills are essential whether one works in new product (or process) development, analytical services or customer technical services. Communication skills are particularly important in the last category as lab staff members work with customers and potential customers to understand their firm’s operating problems and concerns.

Effective listening skills are a critical part of oral communication skills. Polite but effective questioning can enable lab staff members to better understand the problem their customer is experiencing and what, in their opinion, constitutes an effective solution.

Employment interviewing

The employment interview process has become a multistep procedure. Screening interviews include on-campus interviews, interviews at job fairs held at conferences such as PittCon and the ACS national meetings, telephone interviews, and online interviews. All these need to be designed to help the hiring manager make the decision on whether to invite the candidate for an on-site interview. On-site interviews are expensive but it isn’t the travel expenses; it is the time of all the individuals engaged in the on-site interview process. So it is essential to invite only the best candidates necessary to make an informed hiring decision and choose a candidate who will perform well in the available position and is a good match for your lab’s workplace culture.

The behavioral interview has come to the fore in the last several years. In this type of interview, candidates are asked questions about how they would handle—or have handled in the past—situations likely to occur in the workplace. These may be interpersonal conflicts, getting things done with limited resources, managing multiple priorities, etc. Of course, other types of questions dealing with the candidate’s laboratory experience and accomplishments are asked as well, along with questions designed to determine if the candidate will be a good match for your workplace culture. A good match increases the chances a candidate will become a high-impact employee after being hired.

Some progressive managers review candidates with all the employees who will work with them. Before the onsite interview, the hiring manager divides up interviewing responsibilities to ensure that important questions will be asked at least once. At least some of the interviewers should familiarize themselves with the candidate’s academic research experience or previous job experience so they can ask challenging questions, not questions answered in the candidate’s résumé. The second staff meeting is immediately after the candidate’s visit. Each person who met with the candidate provides his or her opinion of whether the candidate will make an excellent employee and the reasoning behind that opinion.

The employment interview seminar

Employment interview seminars, once primarily a feature of large-company on-site interviews, now are a common feature of mid-sized and often small company interviews as well. Besides offering an opportunity to evaluate a candidate’s oral communication skills, employment interview seminars can enable members of the seminar audience to develop a sense of whether the individual will become a high-impact employee. Audience members can get a reading on how the individual formulates and defines problems and then works toward their solution. Questions from audience members can aid greatly in developing this understanding.

Making a good impression on candidates

High-impact job candidates are highly sought after. Even in today’s job market, with many candidates chasing a relatively small number of positions, companies compete vigorously with each other to identify and hire high-impact job candidates. Lab managers must do more than offer competitive salaries and benefits to succeed in this competition. They need to develop and formulate a strong message that their company is a place where the candidate would enjoy working and succeed in pursuing their professional goals. They must understand the pool of candidates they are trying to reach with their employment advertisements and have an effective process for managing the responses to those advertisements.

An effective on-site interviewing process is essential. The best way to develop one is to have a generic interview agenda that can be tailored to individual job candidates. Then, be sure all those interviewing the candidate understand the importance of being well prepared. These interviews should be their primary focus during the on-site interview day, with other job responsibilities temporarily secondary.

Interviewers should be coached on how to improve their effective listening skills. (One of the most useful training courses I ever took was on effective listening skills.) In particular, employees interviewing candidates should understand how important it is to study the candidate’s résumé ahead of time and formulate insightful questions—not ones with answers easily found in the candidate’s résumé or cover letter.

Managers should develop and implement a consistent candidate assessment method. This ensures that all candidates for a position are “measured” by the same standard. Before the on-site interview, managers should meet with staff members to discuss the parameters of the available laboratory position and the individual job candidates to be interviewed. All interviewers, including the lab manager, should focus on the specific competencies and personality traits likely to turn candidates into high-impact employees should they be hired.

All interviewers should meet as soon as possible after the on-site interview to discuss the candidate’s qualifications, skills and the impressions the candidate made. Lab managers should run these discussions so they don’t turn into an exercise in which staff members try to figure out the manager’s opinions of candidates and parrot them back to the manager.

Finally, obtain feedback from the candidate. In particular, if the candidate declines your job offer, try to find out why. Also, ask them what they liked and disliked about the interview process.


Identifying and interviewing job candidates is a timeconsuming and expensive process. Therefore, it behooves lab managers to effectively identify high-impact individuals among job candidates. Doing this reduces the number of interviews that must be conducted, thereby reducing the laboratory’s recruiting costs while hiring high-impact individuals.