The 21st century IRB office is run by professional-level staff more than in previous years. While 30 years ago an IRB could rely on a long-time employee who had experience without credentials, this model is becoming rare. These days, IRBs increasingly are staffed with people who have bachelor’s and master’s degrees and human research subjects protection certification.
So how do research administrators find the best-fit employees from the exclusive pool of qualified individuals?
A first step is to advertise the position on both the institution’s jobs page and on national IRB forums, such as the PRIM&R job site and IRB Forum, suggests Rebecca Armstrong, DVM, PhD, director, research subject protection, University of California, Berkeley.
"We also have advertised locally on Craigslist," she says.
Here are some additional tips on how to hire and retain the best staff for an IRB office:
Screen applicants personally.
"I do all of the screening," Armstrong says. "Human resources doesn’t help us screen to see if they’re qualified."
Armstrong and her assistant director, Tani Prestage, MA, MPH, CIP, look through all of the applications and then select the best qualified applicants for a 30-minute telephone interview.
"I use a set script that I’ve had for the past 10 years," Armstrong says.
Her telephone interview questions include:
- Why did you apply for this position?
- What did you like most about your previous position?
- What did you like least?
- How do you approach a position that calls for attention to detail?
Armstrong also makes sure candidates are computer literate and asks for examples of how they’ve multitasked at work, to see if they can multitask successfully.
After the telephone interview, she narrows the candidates down to three to five and has them come into the office for face-to-face interviews.
Additional questions for interviewees might include:
- Describe the three best attributes you have for this position.
- What is your experience in implementing policies and procedures based on regulations?
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
"These are not IRB-specific questions, but they’ll give us an idea of their attitude and what their skills are," Armstrong says. "People who are bright — lifelong learners — can learn the regulations and know how to apply them."
The IRB office’s staff are included in this next stage. "This helps us identify a group that works well together," Armstrong says.
Armstrong gives staff a template of possible questions, but they can ask what they like. She doesn’t sit in on those sessions. Then the final decision is hers.
New hires are mentored, trained, and empowered.
The IRB workload learning curve is high, so mentoring is an essential part of training, Prestage notes.
"We have intensive mentoring," Armstrong says. "It’s a coaching model with online training."
New employees are required to take CITI training on both the sociobehavioral and biomedical modules.
"They also take the IRB members’ modules so they know what CITI is telling IRB members," Armstrong says.
Since CITI is self-paced learning, they can complete the modules over time.
Each IRB professional is expected to continue education beyond the in-house coaching and mentoring.
"We make a point of sending staff to national meetings and regional meetings," Armstrong says. "This helps them develop confidence and benchmark with other people, learning they are not the only ones with certain issues and problems."
Armstrong has also empowered staff by encouraging them to present topics and papers at PRIM&R.
"This gives them recognition from their peers and lets people know what we do and how we do it," she says. "It’s nice for them personally, as well as professionally."
Employees are trained to share the workload.
"We share with somebody else so we can cover each other’s vacations," Prestage says.
"Or if there’s a particularly thorny or urgent issue, they let me know and I watch the protocol for responses," she adds.
At UC Berkeley, employees are placed at various levels of responsibility. The IRB’s employees have a range of levels from 2 to 5, depending on their experience and expertise, she adds.
Prestage is at level 5. The committee administrators are level 4s. A new IRB analyst would be a level 2, and everyone else is at level 3. Employees can share the workload within their level or help out with lower levels, she says.
Typically, each employee is assigned a protocol panel that stays with him or her for the duration of the study. This way employees know it very well, and it makes for a more efficient process. But sometimes an IRB employee is out of work, and this requires someone else to look at that project.
"One reason it’s easy for people to cover their colleagues’ workload is because we have an all-electronic IRB approval system," Armstrong says. "We can go into anyone’s panel and reassign protocols."
If someone is out of work for an extended period of time, then work assignments are shifted electronically.
Earn staff’s trust through giving them yours.
"I really back up the staff," Armstrong says.
When an investigator complains or refuses to do something the IRB office asked, then Armstrong backs up her employee’s decision.
"We work so hard on consistency and make sure the staff has the right knowledge, that I am able to back them up," she explains. "I let principal investigators know that the information they received from my staff is correct."
On the rare occasion that the PI was given the wrong information, Armstrong will admit it — viewing the situation as a teachable moment — but most of the time she can confirm what the IRB employee said.
Over time, PIs learned that they could not obtain a different result by complaining to IRB leadership, so the complaints dwindled down to far fewer each year, Armstrong says.