Improve management by using practice strategies

Expert offers tips in a nutshell

IRB offices require skilled, dedicated, hard-working staff, and it's not always easy to find the right people for the available jobs.

Through years of trial and error of hiring, firing, and managing staff, one IRB office expert has developed some best practice strategies.

The first step is to view the hiring process as an opportunity to find the person who is the best overall match for the IRB team, rather than simply looking for the person with the most experience and technical skills, suggests Tanna MacReynold, CIP, institutional review office assistant director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center of Seattle, WA.

"Sometimes there are very good folks out there who are not trained specifically in this position," MacReynold says.

But a great IRB office employee can be created so long as the person hired has the basic skills of interacting well with other people, paying close attention to detail, juggling heavy workloads, and exhibiting loyalty to employers, MacReynold says.

"I've hired folks who were managing activities at a health club," MacReynold says. "We brought them in the door and worked with them as they learned the system, allowing promotional opportunities to grow, and they did well."

Granted, it might take twice as long — six months instead of three months —- to fully train a new employee who has limited or no exposure to an IRB office, but it can be well worth the investment, MacReynold says.

"I think it's worth the extra six months so long as you know upfront that they have a commitment to the institution and want to stay with it," she adds.

IRB directors can assess these basic qualities of social skills, team-playing ability, and commitment to work through the interview process by following these tips:

Ask the human resources department to pre-screen applicants.

Work with the human resources (HR) department to narrow down your search to the people who meet your minimum qualifications, MacReynold says.

"Our HR department asks us questions to find out what kinds of things we're looking for," she explains. "We might say, for instance, that we want candidates with a strong commitment that can handle the workload."

The HR department then would know not to send over candidates who have jumped jobs several times in the past few years.

Read between the lines during job interview.

"I actually, in the interview process, almost try to talk a person out of the job," MacReynold says. "I tell them the most difficult aspects of the job, and then I invite them in to visually see the paperwork and talk to other employees."

MacReynold also gives the job applicant the number of a staff member to call, and if they don't take advantage of this opportunity, she might see this as a lack of commitment.

Another indicator that the person might not understand how challenging the IRB job can be is if he or she doesn't ask any questions during the job interview, MacReynold says.

"It seems to me that you would have some questions about it," she says.

For the first 20 minutes of the job interview, MacReynold goes into detail about what the job will entail. Typically, an HR department employee will be there to sit in on the interview, as will an IRB office employee, such as an IRB analyst, with whom the person hired will be working, MacReynold explains.

"The HR person allows the analyst and me to ask questions and conduct the interview, and then she can pick up on key things to ask in follow-up questions," MacReynold says. "The IRB analyst is there to explain what the job is like."

Use intuition to bring all input together.

"One of the things I always train is to never follow your gut, to have standardized questions and to look for the right answers and the right references," MacReynold says. "But you do have a gut feeling about folks."

In fact, part of the interview process involves having the top candidates for the job come in for a second interview in which they will meet the IRB team, and this is where the staff's intuition comes into play.

"The staff gives me feedback," MacReynold says.

Also, a manager's intuition might be right on target when it red-flags the fact that the prospective employee had some very convenient excuses for not providing a supervisor as a reference.

"If you interview someone and they won't give an immediate supervisor as a reference, then turn the person away," MacReynold says. "I've gotten burned on this issue in the past when someone we hired used a friend as a reference and didn't turn out to be a good match for us."

Once the best candidate is hired, it's time to continue assessing the person's suitability for the job and their fit with the office team, MacReynold says.

Whether an IRB director or fellow staff trains the new employee, it's good to have weekly meetings with the new person and make certain all problems are addressed soon after they arise, MacReynold suggests.

"We have an open door policy as far as having staff come in here to ask questions," MacReynold says.

If it becomes immediately apparent that the person isn't a good fit, then the IRB director can either work with the rest of the team to turn the person's work around or, if nothing is achieved with these attempts, then fire the person during the probationary period.

Firing new employees should be done before the person passes the probationary period, because if the person isn't pulling his or her weight, then the rest of the staff are becoming less productive as they spend increasing time talking about the problem, MacReynold notes.

"The staff should trust management, and that's really hard," MacReynold says. "So you have to do everything you can to help the person succeed at first, because it's expensive to let someone go."

But if it just doesn't work out, then the director should make a clean break.

And the firing should not be a surprise to anyone, including the new employee.

"When you see a problem with an employee, you have to let him or her know they have a problem, and document what you've said and done about it," MacReynold says.

In some cases, the person will succeed after being given some additional tools needed to get the job done, she notes.

"You can make sure someone with seniority in the office provides the person with the information needed to get the job done," she says. "I try to pair people up, so I'll have a senior person available for the new employee to see if he or she has any questions."

The senior employee then has ample opportunity to assess the new employee's teamwork, attitude, and disposition, MacReynold adds.

Even when an IRB director's staff are working at their best, and the team is strong, it's important to continue to manage employees, keeping an eye on morale, MacReynold says.

Burnout can occur even among the best office situations.

Some ways to prevent it include creating a flexible work environment in which staff can move into different positions in the office, including both lateral moves and promotional moves, MacReynold says.

For example, one employee in MacReynold's office had been there for a long time, so managers decided to let her and the other employees mix and match duties to make the work a little more exciting for everyone, she says.

"The team worked out since we wanted them to be part of changing and enhancing their jobs," MacReynold says. "And it turned out to be a great change in their office."

Other ways to improve and maintain morale are to reinforce the team and provide both personal and group positive feedback, MacReynold says.

"A strong team can keep morale up because if one person is overloaded and feeling down, then in a strong team, someone else will rise to the occasion and say, 'Can I help you? What can I do?'" MacReynold explains.

An IRB director might also make announcements in team meetings about an individual's exemplary effort or the team's great work.

"Or you might try to obtain a pay raise for someone who is an amazing performer in their tasks," MacReynold says. "Just acknowledging people and what they're doing can help morale."

Finally, effective managers typically have their institution's support, MacReynold says.

"I work in a place that's wonderful about that and is very supportive of the IRB office," MacReynold says. "It's very important for a manager to know they have that support from the institution as a whole."