Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Requirements for Finding and Keeping the Best Candidates for Your Lab

An organization can accomplish only what the individuals within the organization contribute

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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People are the most important aspect of any organization or business. The organization can accomplish only what the individuals within the organization contribute. As a laboratory leader, it is vital for us to sponsor and develop a strong sense of community in our staff. Developing a strong sense of community begins with the recruiting and hiring processes. To contribute positively to our community, we are looking for candidates who can bring the following attributes to the organization:

  • Maturity
  • Personal accountability
  • Intrinsic motivation1
  • An interest in collaboration
  • Critical thinking2
  • Safety consciousness
  • A willingness to give3
  • Leadership

Our recruiting and hiring philosophy is to hire attitude and train skill.5

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Recruiting process

Today, there are multiple paths to finding qualified candidates. It is no longer enough to simply post an open position on the company website and expect the candidates to find us. We try to use a multifaceted recruiting approach that includes:

  • Company career website
  • Referrals from current employees
  • Social media, such as LinkedIn
  • Local professional societies
  • Internet job boards
  • Leadership team’s personal networks
  • Professional recruiters

As we search for candidates, we are actively seeking the following characteristics:

  • Technical excellence
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication skills
  • Creativity
  • Flexibility
  • Teamwork6
  • Leadership7

Of these, technical excellence is the easiest to find and the easiest to evaluate. However, we want to consider all candidates who demonstrate at least the minimum technical skill required for the position. Additional technical skill is largely irrelevant.8 The other characteristics will drive the hiring decision.

Candidates who can demonstrate the following characteristics during interviews and other interactions will usually be the most successful candidates:

  • Emotional maturity
  • Passion9
  • Energy
  • A giving attitude

Resume review is a critical skill for all hiring managers. In some cases, so many candidates apply for a position that many resumes need to be rapidly and effectively screened. In other cases, few candidates are available, and patient scrutiny of the existing resumes is required. In any situation, clear decisiveness is required in resume review. When we screen resumes, we are looking for leadership and innovation indicators, and we are cautious about time gaps, lists, and errors.

Once the best resumes percolate to the top, we conduct brief telephone interviews to further evaluate the candidates. For a typical open position, we are screening 50 to 100 resumes to pick five to 10 candidates to call with the goal of inviting three candidates for in-person interviews. Phone-screen interviews typically take 15 to 30 minutes and focus on the details of the resume. Telephone interviews require careful listening. Successful candidates are those with whom we wish more conversation.

Interview process

Ideally, we want three candidates for in-person interviews. Our interview teams are effective at comparing candidates with each other and differentiating between their opportunities and challenges. It is often difficult to interview a single candidate for a position, for it is hard to avoid comparing a single candidate with our ideal candidate.

The primary reason to interview candidates is to seek one who fits the position. Fit is both with the job that needs to be done and with the rest of the current team. Evaluating technical skills is a secondary portion of the interview. That should have been accomplished during the telephone interview.

The first step of the interview process is selecting a 360-degree interview team. The 360-degree team includes interviewers from staff above, equal to, and below the open position in the organizational hierarchy. Since community is so important, we want to obtain a clear view of how the candidate interacts with staff at all levels of the organization. Poor candidates will work hard to impress leaders but not treat lower-level staff well. Our desire is to screen out these candidates.

Our approach to in-person interviewing is to focus on behavior-based questions. Here are examples of our typical interview questions:

  • Tell me about a time you had conflict with a co-worker and how you resolved it.
  • Tell me about a time you faced a priority issue and how you solved it.
  • Tell me about a time you made an important mistake and how you communicated it.
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What personal attributes make you the best person for this position?

While the stock market states that previous performance is not an indicator of future performance for any specific stock, the opposite is true for people; past performance is an excellent indicator of future performance. We want to create scenario questions that probe past actions and behaviors and predict how those actions and behaviors will work in our environment. We probe attitudes about safety, quality, teamwork, and communication.

Once the formal interviews are complete, we start to make decisions. We convene the interview team and obtain feedback from each member. It is important to hear each interview team member and explore any issues discovered during the interviews. Our strategy is for any leaders on the interview team to express their opinions last so we receive unbiased feedback from the team.

Once we have candidates we are interested in hiring, we look for any additional information we can find to prevent any unpleasant surprises later. This is a good time to check in with the personal references provided. Typical questions for references include information about personality, behavior, and areas for improvement.

Once a first-choice candidate is selected, it is time for the offer process. It is also time to remind the candidate of all the positive reasons for him or her to accept the imminent offer. We will start notifying all the candidates in whom we are no longer interested. We will, however, hold off notifying other good candidates until we have an accepted offer from the first-choice candidate.


There is only one chance to make a first impression. Planning the onboarding of a new employee is critical. It is important to meet the expectations of the new employee with respect to readiness, desire to have him or her aboard, and commitment to his or her early success.

Our onboarding process has four phases:

  • Before the first day
  • The first day
  • The first week
  • The first month

There are many details that need to be taken care of before the new candidate even arrives for the first day. Preparation for his or her arrival is critical. It is important to work with the supervisor to establish a clear “roles and responsibilities” document establishing the new role.10 It is also important to establish expectations with the supervisor about the milestones that are expected to indicate whether the new employee is progressing as needed. Key deliverables before the first day include:

  • 30-, 60-, and 90-day goals
  • Computer
  • Workstation/desk
  • Nameplate
  • Office supplies
  • Personal safety protective equipment
  • Identification of a mentor

On the first day, we want to introduce the new person to our community and ensure he or she can find vital things such as coffee and restrooms. Here is a typical day-one checklist:

  • Introductions to everyone in the organization
  • Lunch with the supervisor
  • Tour of the facility
  • Safety indoctrination
  • Check that computer and network ID work
  • Meet the mentor
  • Get company ID
  • Start safety training

During the first week, the goal is to complete safety training and start introducing the new staff member to the science conducted in the lab. Here is a typical week-one checklist:

  • Complete safety training
  • Do ethics training
  • Complete general quality SOPs
  • Begin lab-specific SOPs
  • Understand expectations
    • Review roles and responsibilities
    • Review 30-, 60-, and 90-day objectives
    • Review annual objectives
  • Begin introduction to internal work processes, such as timesheets
  • Provide introduction to the company

Over the course of the first month, the goal is to complete initial lab training and have the new person start to contribute in the laboratory. Here is a typical month-one checklist:

  • Complete initial lab-specific training
  • Start making contributions to the lab work
  • Build working relationships with other lab members
  • Be introduced to how the business works
  • Be introduced to key customers/clients
  • Obtain feedback from supervisor on 30-day objectives
  • Identify further training needs
  • Have lunch with managers

Retention of new employees rests largely on five things:

  1. Integrating them into the work community11
  2. Providing them with the tools and knowledge they need (technical, safety, quality)
  3. Engaging them with appropriate technical challenges
  4. Enabling them to have real job satisfaction12
  5. Providing them the connections needed to ask questions, obtain more information, and grow in their role13


Recruiting and hiring is a process that must be owned by the managers/leaders of the organization. Ensuring the right people come into the organization is a high-priority activity. Setting up a process for careful selection of the right people is a key responsibility of managers. Utilizing all the talents of the organization and following a behavior-based process can enable high-quality hiring decisions. Once the right candidates are selected, managers can drive a detailed onboarding process that makes a good first impression and ensures that the new member of the team is guided and encouraged to be successful.


1. Drive, Daniel Pink, Riverhead Books, New York, 2009

2. Superforecasting, Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Crown, New York, 2015

3. Give and Take, Adam Grant, Penguin Books, New York, 2013

4. Together Is Better, Simon Sinek, Penguin Books, New York, 2016

5. First, Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999

6. How to Be a Positive Leader, edited by Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer, Berret-Koehler, San Francisco, 2014

7. A Class with Drucker, William Cohen, AMACON, New York, 2008

8. Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin, Penguin Books, New York, 2008

9. I Feel Great, Pat Croce, Running Press, Philadelphia, 2000

10. The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2012

11. The Culture Code, Dan Coyle, Bantam Books, New York, 2018

12. Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Paul Marciano, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2010

13. Building a Knowledge-Driven Organization, Robert Buckman, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2004