Managing Techs: Part 1, a case study

Aug 22 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

DJMH said in a comment to the last post:

I would like to know why you thought it was appropriate to involve the tech in this. You're the manager, and you put the tech in the uncomfortable situation of possibly ratting out a co-worker.

This decision, and in fact, management of techs, is very much a function of who the tech is.

In the last post I didn't include some background, etc, (like that post needed more length, anyway). So, here's some relevant information that when into my managing techs, in general, and this one in particular. I am, as readers know, old for these parts (being the internet). I'm doing my best to uphold Boomer Honor, which according to some is oxymoronic. Or just plain moronic. I've been a prof for about 30 years, and been pretty steadily NIH funded since the beginning. I've had 7 techs in that period of time, but some years with no tech at all. And they are all very different people, with different goals and different skill sets.

Also relevant is that I run a small lab. During the year, it's me, a postdoc, a tech. Now I've got a (yes, a, as in one) grad student, who is an MD/PhD, which is about the only kind of PhD student I'm willing to take at this point. In the summer I get another 2-4 summer types, and we really ramp up the experiments.

But irrespective of size I try to run a lab that in today's lingo is "flat". I try and reduce the hierarchy and the effects of hierarchy, as appropriate for people's goals and skills. This is much easier in a small lab. I involve the tech and postdoc in everything that is of even remote interest to them. Of course there are things, such as each other's salary, that they don't have to know. But we meet as a group and talk about what people are doing, and everyone gets some say in what they do. Yes, there are things, such as the nitty gritty of extracting data from electrophysiology recordings, that no one wants to do.

So why did I involve the tech in the problem of Jane? Firstly, it was Tech who brought the problem to me. She is the one who signs off on the time cards, something she & I discussed and agreed upon. Secondly, if Tech had said: I don't want to do this, it would have totally, and appropriately, fallen to me. But this particular person, Tech, is functions very much as a "lab manager", and is incredibly good with people.  She had set up the complex schedules for our summer experiments (which involve extensive human  labor, often working in pairs), and really knew the summer students. She was outraged that someone would take advantage of the lab in this way. She was outraged that someone would behave unethically.

In this situation, in this case, it did not occur to me NOT to include the tech in the problem. Even if I had discovered the problem, and I decided that I needed to be the one to handle it, I would have presented it to both the PD & Tech and gotten their opinions on what was happening, and what should be done about it.

Yet, I would have done this with all the techs I have had over the course of my career. There were some who were professionally younger, as opposed to chronological age. There were some who were computer/electronic wizards, but not so great in managing people. But by having this  tech talk to the student first, it was one way to defuse the situation (if it was an honest mistake), and keep the inquiry casual.

If I had endless & bottomless money (hahaha) I would hire people of many different skills, and have lots of people with lots of different abilities. I'd have a programmer and a people manager and a data processor and an animal wrangler. But despite what some people think, even aging blue-haired profs don't have endless money, and hire the best they can and work with what they have.

So in hiring a tech, one needs to ask oneself, what is the most important thing  I  need in my lab, right now, to get the data, papers, results, I need for this stage of my career? Early career people have different needs then recently tenured, etc. Talking about how to hire and how to manage is another post. Stay tuned.




10 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    Ok, let's consider a hypothetical scenario here. Let's say that Jane was lying about being in lab because she was going through a personal crisis--perhaps she was pregnant and deciding whether or not to keep the pregnancy and dealing with a lot of morning sickness as well.

    From my standpoint, she should not have to share this personal issue with her co-workers. Of course if she wants to, fine, but it would have been better in that case for you to say to Tech, "Thanks for the heads-up on the attendance and lying; I will take it from here." Then you could perhaps have had a private conversation with Jane about this, she might have spilled the beans, you could have found a mutually amicable solution, and other people in the lab would not have to have known about her possibly embarrassing personal situation.

    Whereas, the way you handled it, Jane might have felt trapped into telling everyone about this. Particularly awkward if the unwanted pregnancy derived from a night with the postdoc! (Ok, I am turning this into a soap opera, but in my experience, sometimes labs go through soap opera-like entanglements).

    It seems as though you used the tech to inquire about Jane's absences so that you could avoid having that awkward conversation yourself until it was completely unavoidable. You call it a "flat lab", I call it abdication of responsibility.

    • potnia theron says:

      I disagree. I do not think that having a crisis is a justification for lying on your time card, which is essentially cheating and theft. If I have (1) live animals (2) surgical supplies and (3) class III drugs, I cannot have someone who is not absolutely honest. This was explained to Jane, who agreed (2nd convo). She still lied about hours after that conversation. If she wasn't making the hours she had committed to, that is a different issue, and one that I would have approached her independently.

      Part of the point of the post is that each tech is a different person with different strengths. This Tech is virtually a lab manager (a term not used at my uni, for various reasons, except for senior PhD level people). She did the time cards, and set the schedules for the summer students. She is in fact, the appropriate first person to deal with these issues, by mutual agreement between me & tech. Further, the summer workers understood that.

      • DJMH says:

        (1) I never said she was justified in lying; I said that the lying might have stemmed from major, private, personal issues and it was inappropriate to possibly open her up to her colleagues on that front.

        (2) Which is it--your lab is "flat" or you have a lab manager? You are trying to have it both ways. Regardless, privacy is significantly compromised by bringing in more people than necessary to this debacle.

        I do agree with your eventual outcome and decisions, just not the process.

      • DJMH says:

        And to clarify, I particularly take issue with the point where you say "Even if I had discovered the problem, and I decided that I needed to be the one to handle it, I would have presented it to both the PD & Tech and gotten their opinions on what was happening, and what should be done about it."

        That cannot be justified by saying that Tech is the lab manager....why bring in PD to this conversation? Completely unnecessary and creates more problems than it solves.

  • Arlenna says:

    My thought is that if the tech is the supervisor of the other person (as indicated by the timecard sign-off and schedule managing), it's very appropriate to involve them in these kinds of personnel issues. If the tech is "just" a coworker and has no supervisory role, then it might not be appropriate. So, it all makes sense to me.

  • I agree with Arlenna. Since the tech was already involved (as the signed on time cards), it makes sense to work with them to resolve the situation. And I don't think any kind of personal crisis would justify lying on time cards that are actually used to determine hours and pay (as opposed to time cards filled out by salaried people, which makes no sense but does happen at some places).

  • eeke says:

    I think you were right to dismiss the student. Even if she was experiencing a personal crisis, there are ways for her to communicate reasons for absence ("personal" is sufficient). Lying is unacceptable, and she was made aware of this issue and given a chance to make things right which she did not.

    As for the role of the Tech, was the student aware that the tech was her supervisor? I've seen confusion in other situations where post-docs or other lab personnel are put in charge of employees (students or junior techs, etc) and things have fallen apart due to miscommunication.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Why only MD/PhD students, Potnia?

  • jmz4 says:

    Running a flat lab seems like a bad idea to me, for precisely this reason. There are de facto positions of authority, and it seems like your tech occupied one, and you found it useful in this case. Formalizing that authority seems like the better choice than pretending it doesn't exist.

    This doesn't have to conflict with running a more or less flat lab intellectually, either, which I do believe is worthwhile.
    So, given that distinction, why is it you prefer to try to maintain a flat lab?

  • Ola says:

    MD/PhD students are guilt-free for the supervisor. Not adding to the mouths at the trough problem. If they can't get an acad-sci job after grad school, they have a fallback career as an MD.

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