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Finders keepers: How to retain good research staff
Small company has learned big lessons
Carolinas Research Associates in Charlotte, NC, is a small company: there is a total of eight staff members, four of whom are research coordinators. Over the seven years the company has been in business, CEO Yvonne McCracken, MPH, and co-founder Sara Brandon have discovered a few truths about out how to find and keep good employees.
• Don’t limit yourself. While many people prefer to have RNs run their research, Brandon says an RN doesn’t automatically make for a great research coordinator. "It’s nice if they have a health care background, but more important is that they have done college work in biology or chemistry," she says. "We even have a coordinator who is a high school graduate, and she’s the strongest one we have."
For hospitals, it can be different, McCracken says. In those cases, an RN may be more important. "We do outpatient work, and we don’t want them to be nurses. We want them to be study coordinators." What really makes a good coordinator is simply someone with a health care background who is extremely detail-oriented, bright, flexible, and "able to juggle a lot of different tasks," she says.
• Don’t be afraid of first jobbers. McCracken says they have had successful coordinators come right from college. One of the benefits of hiring someone new to the work force is the ability to train him or her to do a job how you want it done, she adds.
• Use your universities. Getting involved in college internship programs is another way to find good employees. "It’s great when you can mold someone like that," says McCracken. "Experience can be great for bringing you new ideas, but we like to do things our way." There are certain elements that make for good clinical research practices, Brandon adds, "We like to go beyond that. We do things in a way that is different, but that we think makes us a cut above the rest."
• Ask the right questions. Interviews have changed over the years at Carolinas Research. McCracken handles initial interviews. "I tell them who we are, what we do and what the position entails, and give them a job description to review and make notes on," she notes. They meet with both her and Brandon for the second go-around, at which "they do most of the talking," says McCracken.
"We ask them open-ended questions so we can figure out if they are a team player, what their interest level is, and what they understand about the position." (See list of sample behavioral interview questions, below.) Answers can be surprising, she adds.
Behavioral Interview Questions
Source: Carolinas Research Associates, Charlotte, NC.
"Sometimes people think research sounds interesting, but they get started and hate it. We want them to understand our expectations," McCracken points out.
• Consider peer interviews. If the candidate is still interested and interesting, then the next interview is held with staff members. "Meeting with them is so that they can see the way things work and ask questions they might not feel comfortable asking us," McCracken explains. It also gives the staff a chance to size up the candidate.
While it hasn’t happened yet, McCracken says that if the staff didn’t like a candidate, she and Brandon would take a very close look at him or her again.
"As long as it wasn’t for some reason, like the person used to date someone’s sister, it would carry a lot of weight with us," she says.
Don’t micromanage your staff
• Show you respect them. Staff members, once established, are given a lot of autonomy and responsibility. "We integrate them as much as possible in the running of the business," says McCracken.
Both she and Brandon came from larger organizations before they started their company. One thing they don’t miss and make sure they don’t perpetrate — micromanagement. Nothing makes for unhappy employees like second-guessing what they do or looking over their shoulders to make sure they do it right, she says.
• Let staff know they are special. "We know that without our staff, we wouldn’t be here," says Brandon. "We strive to make sure they know that."
The company holds regular retreats, close the office for a staff fun day over the Christmas holiday period, and make sure that bonuses are shared liberally. Indeed, although larger organizations may be able to provide better base salaries, they may not have the flexibility of a small organization in terms of bonuses. One staff member left, but returned after nine months because she didn’t do as well financially at the other company.
"They couldn’t give her the bonuses we could," recalls McCracken.
• Provide all the opportunities for job growth you can. This is probably the only area in which larger organizations have an edge over smaller ones. But still, says McCracken, "we make sure we give them as many growth opportunities as we can. We want them to learn new things, and once they are established here, we’re happy to let them do whatever they want."
• Evaluate problem positions. While most of the staff have been with the company for a long time, there is one position at Carolinas Research that has had a lot of turnover. "That’s very costly to us," Brandon says.
"It was a position where the person rotated through different offices. Now we make sure they are well integrated into this office before they are turned loose to work on their own. We think that will build a team atmosphere even for those who are working off site," she adds.
• Encourage professional memberships. Carolinas Research pays for dues in professional organizations, certification tests, and trips to professional and business meetings.
• Improve benefits as you can. As a small organization, there are some things that can’t be provided for staff — such as on-site child care. But this year, the company is instituting 401(K) programs. They already have profit sharing.
• Celebrate great work. At the last retreat, staff mentioned the pride they have in what they do. It helps, too, that their sponsors recognize the quality of their product. Brandon says that one coordinator was asked to come to a major pharmaceutical company to explain how she recruited patients for studies. Such kudos are touted and celebrated by the whole staff.
• Keep it fun. If the job isn’t fun, who will want to work there? If it is fun, problems are more easily accepted and staff are more willing to participate in finding solutions.
The good news for all research organizations is that it seems to be getting easier to find coordinators and other research staff, says Brandon.
"I’ve talked to people all across the country, and there is a general sense that recruiting is getting easier," she says. "There are now programs at colleges that teach about research coordinator positions. There is a curriculum at some schools — like Durham Tech — and talk that it might be added to some nursing schools. Now, when you put an ad in the paper for a coordinator, there is more awareness about what it entails. Before, you’d put an ad in the paper and get people without a clue."