Leadership and Staffing

How to Hire the Best Talent for Your Lab

If you don’t have good people working around you, chances are you won’t have good results.

Mark Lanfear

If you pay attention to this column every month, chances are you work in an established lab and manage a good group of employees (hopefully!) who keep the work running smoothly and on time.

But what if all those employees quit tomorrow? And what if you had to start up your own lab from scratch? What would be the biggest challenge in getting back to that sweet spot where everything is running smoothly again?

Whatever challenges arise at the workplace at any given moment, there’s one that will forever stand out: it’s the people, plain and simple. If you don’t have good people working around you, chances are you won’t have good results. This is true of a company that’s been around for a hundred years—or one that’s just starting out.

It’s a continual challenge, too. Just because you have a good workforce now doesn’t mean you won’t have turnover in the near or far future. You must always have your finger on the pulse when it comes to what kind of people are walking into and out of your workplace.

You must always know how to conquer the challenge of getting and keeping the best talent for your lab.

As simple as this sounds, it can also be dizzyingly complex because of how our world of work has changed. There are a million ways to go about finding the right people, from the improbable use of something as fleeting as Twitter to the engagement of a workforce partner with the expertise to source talent through multiple channels.

Similarly, candidates themselves have become super savvy in their quest for the perfect job at the perfect company. Organizations—especially those in the science industry where specialized talent is at a premium—can’t afford to rest on their laurels in their quest to woo potential employees.

Your job as a manager is indeed to ultimately get and keep those employees who will effectively contribute to your lab’s bottom line. It’s a serious proposition, and whether or not you are successful at it, the challenge will remain.

If (and when) this challenge comes directly to you, you probably won’t have a grand plan in your pocket for overhauling your workforce. That’s not something you can do on a whim anyway. But if you need just one qualified candidate, for example, starting on a small scale with the following strategies will get your momentum going.

First, make sure your homework is in order. Keep a professional network of people, maintain an updated presence online, and make smart use of social media and digital tools. It may be tempting to bury yourself in the minutia of your lab’s current big project, but as a manager, you must also invest in things that will help maintain your lab’s presence with the scientific talent pool.

When the time comes, mine your network in the scientific community (this is where maintaining a professional network obviously comes in very handy). Your network can clue you in on people who are actively looking and potentially a good fit. Other managers can also alert you to passive candidates who might be open to change. This one seemingly simple step can often be a gold mine of potential talent— you may even find the right person relatively quickly if you’re lucky.

Don’t be afraid, though, to engage outside help, like a workforce partner who specializes in scientific talent, and who likely has a much larger network of candidates. This is essential if you honestly don’t have the time to do a search yourself—and when you believe your only option may be to cast a wide net into the unknown. A workforce partner can also help analyze your current situation, helping to form a long-range plan for taking care of employment gaps that are not yet seen.

Speaking of the “unknown,” an often-overlooked aspect to acquiring good talent today is the oldfashioned vetting process. Especially if you operate a small lab, you will likely be working intimately with your staff. Soft skills, like being able to get along with colleagues, are just as important as the hard technical skills you no doubt want in an employee. Make sure you personally contact past employers to get a sense of who a candidate is, how he or she works with others, and what their track record is when it comes to employment. Despite our world of social media where everyone is a “known entity” online, speaking to real people is still absolutely essential in the process of hiring someone.

Hiring the best people for your lab is no doubt a daunting task, as it is for every business, big or small. No one process or set of rules will be the answer for every employer. Be open to the modern search manifested in online media, but don’t underestimate the power of classic techniques like using a personal network. Learn from your mistakes what does and doesn’t work—and stick to your own tried-and-true methods for your lab’s individual needs.

The more you polish your skills for sourcing the best talent, the more you might find that you won’t have to use those skills very often.