How to hire. And you're probably doing it wrong.


Like this person in the Sipress New Yorker Cartoon above, at times when embarking on a new and challenging path we all yearn for someone to just tell us what to do.

I was just reviewing the participant feedback forms from this year’s Cold Spring Harbor workshop on Leadership in Bioscience that I co-ran with my brilliant wife Suzanne L. Cohen, Ed.D. and Marquita Qualls, Ph.D.  Remarkably, in response to the question “What would you like to see added to future workshops?” well over half of the respondents wrote “Hiring and interviewing.” Ok, I’ll admit that we got the same suggestion in 2016. In fact, we have been hard at work to give these scientist leaders what they asked for in the upcoming 2018 workshop.

This year we launched our newest workshop module “Hiring and retaining your science team: Interviewing, selecting and orienting.” We ran the workshop for the first time at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm campus in the Spring of 2017 (we turned the tables on these HHMI scientists – this time they were the Guinea pigs in our experiment) and we continue to offer and improve it.

We learned a lot while researching this workshop – most significantly:

1. Using your “gut” to select people to hire is less than useless, its harmful. We get misled by our unconscious biases and snap judgments all the time.  Solution? Make a list of your hiring criteria and score candidates.

2. Conducting “free-form” off the cuff interviews is worse than conducting no interviews at all. Don’t believe us? Check out this publication by Dana et al (2013). Solution? Have a script and ask every candidate the same questions.

3. Most new hires who are let go,  are let go not for lack of technical competency but for lack of certain characteristics thathardly any interviewer ever screens for – ability to manage or resolve conflicts, ability to manage their emotions, ability to hear and use feedback and more. We call these characteristics “personal attributes” and in our new workshop we show scientists how they can gain insight into these characteristics without having to get a degree in Psychology.  Solution? Ask questions like “Tell me about a time you had a conflict with someone in the lab – how did you handle that?” and listen closely.

In short, like our other workshops, “Hiring…” provides a practical toolkit to help scientists do better science. We also provide guidelines and fill-in-the blank interview forms that will transform how you select and retain the best possible people. I sure wish I knew this stuff when I was running my own lab. Check out this workshop here and our whole suite of workshops here.  After all, sometimes we all need to be told what to do.

Carl M. Cohen

President, Science Management Associates