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Strategies to Improve Lab Staff Retention

How to build stronger working relationships that will ultimately reduce staff turnover

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

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Published:May 03, 2021
|4 min read
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People are the most important assets, and the most expensive investments, of any lab. Laboratory scientists become highly skilled individuals, and it takes significant time, and effort to recruit, hire, onboard, and train them. It is therefore in the best interest of the lab to effectively retain those highly skilled employees by reducing staff turnover for the lab. 

Research shows that most employees leave bosses rather than companies. While pay, benefits, and type of work are important, there are other ways to improve staff retention and reduce turnover that are more within the lab manager’s control. The relationship between employee and manager is critical to retaining staff. When this relationship lacks trust and authenticity, problems are inevitable. 

Below are seven different ways for lab managers and supervisors to build stronger working relationships that will ultimately help reduce unwanted staff turnover. 


At the core of most supportive relationships is mutual caring. When supervisors care about the whole person, not just their proficiency at the lab bench, the employee will demonstrate reciprocal caring toward the supervisor, the lab work, and the mission of the organization. While most leaders care about their people, some don’t consistently express it. Showing you care can be as simple as warmly greeting your employees, using please and thank you, using their names in conversations, and asking about their lives away from work. Lab staff will appreciate supervisors who find creative ways to be supportive when difficult things happen in their lives. A little flexibility and grace can generate a successful and loyal employee. 


Authenticity is a willingness to be open and share personal information with the people in the lab. Without getting to know each other, it can be hard to build a supportive relationship. That’s why it’s important for lab managers and supervisors to let their employees into their world, at least a little. When staff understand what’s important to leadership, they can relate better. Being authentic as the manager models the behavior for staff, enabling them to bring their best selves to work making the workplace more comfortable and enjoyable, which improves retention. 


Trust is a vital component of a healthy working relationship. Staff won’t stay long with a manager that they don’t trust. Building trust at work is a key aspect of staff retention. Trust is hard to earn, but easy to lose. The core of trust is a combination of honesty and consistent follow through. By sticking to the truth and doing what you say you’ll do, managers can earn the trust of their staff. A good way to gain your staff ’s trust is to trust them first. Demonstrating that you trust people and expect that trust to be valued helps grow the working relationship and build respect. 


Being willing to invest time, money, and effort in people demonstrates their importance and relevance to the lab. It helps them clearly see their place and role in the organization’s future. As they embrace that future role, especially if it also has the promise of advancement, staff are more likely to stay to realize that potential growth. Training and development also benefit the lab by bringing in more knowledge and skills. 


Part of a trusting relationship is the ability to help the other person. One way that a lab manager or supervisor can help their staff is by providing them with effective constructive feedback. This is feedback that identifies a problem and includes guidance of how to make the improvement. Criticism without the learning elements is a negative experience, whereas constructive feedback can turn a negative outcome into a positive experience. It takes a dose of caring to think through how the individual could do it better and share that with them. Staff respect managers who care enough to help and teach them, especially when things go wrong. That help goes a long way to making staff feel valued, and it can contribute to retaining them for the long term. 


Too many of us are too focused on the next activity in the lab to take a moment to recognize the good things that are happening. Part of a supportive relationship is taking the time to celebrate the successes, big and small. A little praise reminds staff that we see them as people, not resources, and care about their contributions to the mission. Having success at work, and receiving appropriate credit, helps reinforce the reasons why staff want to stay with the lab. 

7. PROVIDE CLEAR EXPECTATIONS A key responsibility of leadership is to provide a clear understanding of what is needed and expected. Staff are much more likely to deliver on specific, well-communicated goals than they are to meet vague expectations. Having direct conversations about objectives and using SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) goals enables everyone to be aligned to what is expected. Uncertainty in the desired outcome simply yields uncertainty in the actions to get there. Clear expectations enable staff to directly contribute to the mission of the lab, reinforcing their personal connection to the lab. 

Retention isn't always the answer

There are times when the lab benefits from the departure of certain individuals, such as when a disruptive, poor performing, or inconsistent member of staff leaves the organization. A poor performer can put additional stress and strain on their colleagues through rework, lack of confidence in results, and unfair workload distribution. When these burdens are lifted, the rest of the team may perform better than they did with an additional person. In fact, the retention of poor performers can erode the rest of the team’s trust in lab management. 

However, in most situations, retaining staff is greatly beneficial to the lab. Retention reduces the cost of replacing skilled scientists, keeps important knowledge and experience in the organization, and enables the existing staff to develop, growing the overall capability of the lab.