Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business


Considerable time and resources are invested in the laboratory design process—to select the best equipment, products, and software tools. But just as important as lab design is the recruitment and retention of skilled employees.

by Donna Kridelbaugh
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Getting new hires up to speed

Onboarding is a critical step in the employee lifecycle that has a major impact on the overall job satisfaction and retention of new hires. A structured onboarding process speeds up the learning curve and results in more engaged employees who will be productive faster. Lab managers, as the direct supervisors of technical personnel, play an essential role in the design and implementation of onboarding programs to transition new hires safely and smoothly into their lab spaces.

What is the value of an onboarding program?

A well-structured, formalized onboarding program is proven to benefit both employees and their organizations with positive outcomes related to higher job satisfaction, performance, organizational commitment, and retention. In a lab environment, effective safety training during onboarding also is essential to reduce risks and injury. Talya N. Bauer, Cameron professor of management in the School of Business at Portland State University, explains, “According to survey research, organizations considered in the top 20 percent in terms of onboarding had 91 percent first-year retention and 62 percent of new employees reaching first-year goals compared with the bottom 30 percent of organizations, which reported only 30 percent retention and 17 percent goal completion for the same time frame.”1

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In a recent survey conducted by Brilliant Ink, a consulting firm that helps clients create meaningful experiences for their employees with the ultimate goal of driving business success, a strong correlation was found between onboarding and employee engagement.2 The 44 percent of employees who reported the lack of a formal, structured onboarding program during their first three months on the job were also more likely to be disengaged. Over the first three months, less engaged employees also reported declining levels of excitement for their new job compared with when they first started. These first 90 days on the job are crucial for the long-term retention and overall productivity of new employees.

Liz Kelly, founder and CEO of Brilliant Ink, also mentions, “In our study, millennials were the most likely to request more structure and guidance during the onboarding process. About 50 percent or higher of all survey participants indicated it was important, regardless of age.” With an increasing workforce demographic of millennials (i.e., birth years of 1980 to 1999), business processes like onboarding must reflect the training preferences of these employees.

The structure of a successful onboarding program

The core activities of the onboarding program at Intertek Allentown—a laboratory that provides advanced materials, chemicals, gases characterization, and problem-solving expertise and services—typically start when the employee accepts the offer of employment and continue through the first 90 days of employment. However, it might be said that the onboarding actually starts during the recruiting process to ensure selection of new hires who fit the company’s culture and shared vision. According to Scott Hanton, general manager of Intertek Allentown, “We have worked really hard on our whole recruiting process—from identifying to hiring to training the right people—because we fundamentally believe the business is comprised of the people. If we have the right people doing the work, then we are going to be a successful business.”

In a recent Lab Manager webinar, Hanton outlined the key features of the onboarding process at Intertek Allentown with four main focus areas: safety, ethics, quality, and lab-specific technical information.3 Other important foci for the onboarding process include employee integration into the company culture and knowledge of internal business processes. At a laboratory-based company, safety is the number-one priority for training a technical hire and the first area addressed in onboarding before an employee can enter the lab. Hanton explains, “In the onboarding of a new lab job, the first responsibility of a lab supervisor is to give the new employees enough information, not only so they can work safely, but so they won’t harm their teammates.”

Onboarding consists of a series of organized activities with touchpoints along the way to maintain open communications and regularly evaluate the employee’s performance. The process is segmented into stages with pre-arrival, first-week, and firstmonth activities. Before the new employee arrives, a discussion is held between the manager and supervisor to outline clear expectations of what the new employee will do in his or her role. Further, the supervisor ensures that all necessary equipment (e.g., computer, identification badge) is ready in advance of the first day. The activities on the first day include lunch with the supervisor, a facility tour, required training, and introduction to business processes. In addition, every person is assigned a peer mentor who can be the go-to person if questions arise. During the rest of the first month, the goal is for the employee to complete required training and become fully integrated into the company culture with significant contributions made in the lab.

Fundamental to Intertek Allentown’s onboarding is a 90-day probationary period that culminates in a formal evaluation to assess the new employee’s progress. This process also can be useful in discharging employees who misrepresented their skills and knowledge during the interview process, although this rarely occurs at Intertek Allentown, as reflected by the high retention rates at the company. This is due in part to a continuous improvement of their onboarding program, based on incorporation of feedback from new employees and lessons learned shared by supervisors.

How to design an effective onboarding program

The development of a written plan is a key activity in designing an effective onboarding process for new hires. To design the content and structure of this plan, Hanton suggests lab managers take a holistic approach and start by asking themselves what a person needs to know to work in the lab space and what he or she should be contributing to the business in the first month. This brain dump, along with input from all stakeholders in the onboarding process, can be written down and then broken up into manageable packages of information.

Also, it is important to have realistic expectations of the amount of information that can be covered within a specific time frame. An onboarding checklist and web-based tracking tools can help organize the process and manage these expectations. Additionally, regular communications between the supervisor and new employee will help keep the process on track and ensure he or she is fully engaged in the process.

The overall types of activities for an onboarding program will vary by organizational culture but ideally will incorporate the principles of the 4 C’s as defined by Bauer: clarity, confidence, connection, and culture.4 In addition, employee feedback can be used to improve the onboarding experience to better align with the 4 C’s. Bauer explains, “If feedback from new employees is that they are confused about their role within the organization, design activities to focus on clarity; if they are feeling lonely and having a hard time connecting to insiders, activities should be designed to alleviate that and enhance feelings of connection.”

It is important to keep in mind that the little things can make a big difference in the successful transition of an employee into a new position. Moving and switching jobs are major life stressors, so the more a company can do to help with this transition, the less stressed and better focused the employee will be in his or her new position. For example, a company might connect a new hire with a reliable realtor during the house-hunting process, or create a welcome manual that overviews pertinent information about living in the local community.

In designing an onboarding process, there also needs to be flexibility built into the system to adapt to individual employee needs. For example, Kelly advises managers to recognize that when it comes to onboarding, “not one size fits all.” She adds, “According to our survey findings, about half of all participants reported wanting to hit the ground running right away with a visible new project or assignment, while the other half preferred to take the first 90 days to become acclimated and learn as much as possible. Knowing how your employees will best perform is incredibly valuable information in thinking about how to support them the most during this critical period.”

This flexibility is reflected in the onboarding process at Intertek Allentown, which is competency- based to allow new hires to accelerate through the program as quickly as they demonstrate knowledge in each area. Hanton shares the impressive story of a recent QC chemist who navigated through the onboarding process to interact with customers and generate revenue for the company within two weeks of employment: “We had a process that enabled her to be successful rapidly. We didn’t bury her under two months’ worth of expectations and prevent her from being a successful scientist in the lab.”

Major pitfalls in the onboarding process

A major pitfall in the onboarding process, according to Hanton, is making assumptions about the knowledge of the new hire: “Especially with well-educated new hires, we all make assumptions about what they know, especially if they have significant work experience elsewhere. For example, just because you hire a PhD with ten years of work experience doesn’t mean that they understand your lab safety protocols.” Thus, the onboarding process must be independent of such assumptions and require all employees to go through the same basic training.

Other issues in the onboarding process involve not talking about specific job duties or not showing a clear path to career success. To circumvent these issues, Kelly advises that the onboarding process needs to be specific and relevant: “Having an onboarding program that addresses daily work needs was rated most valuable by our survey participants, but it also was extremely uncommon.” Employees value clear direction and having a vision of where their career may go with a company. Thus, onboarding could include discussions on career development opportunities to inspire new hires to strive for excellence.

Where to find resources about the onboarding process

When designing or updating an onboarding process, remember you don’t have to conduct this process in isolation. You can consult outside agencies, gather onboarding checklists from peers at other companies, and seek training from professional groups. For example, the Association of Laboratory Managers offers a course at its annual conference in the fundamentals of lab management, which includes onboarding issues. Human resources associations (e.g., Society for Human Resources Management) also publish a wealth of free information on the topic.

While the design of an onboarding process will be unique to a company’s needs and priorities, there also are best practices and case studies to turn to for ideas. For example, Brilliant Ink has compiled a list of eight  onboarding programs that actively promote employee engagement, including a rotational “boot camp” activity to cross-train employees in other departments and roles.5 Most important, seek input from everyone involved in the onboarding process—from lab technician to senior management—to ensure the design of a comprehensive program that will lead new hires down a guided path to success.


1. Talya Bauer, Onboarding: The Critical Role of Hiring Managers. 

2. Brilliant Ink, Employee Experience Research Study.

3. Scott Hanton, Lab Manager webinar. 

4. Talya Bauer, Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success.

5. Brilliant Ink, Eight Onboarding Programs We Love.