How to Motivate and Retain Clinical Research Staff

Takisha Adair, Clinical Operations Manager, Covance

Abstract: Retaining staff is challenging for clinical research organizations. Motivating employees and engagement can help reduce staff turnover. Organizational leaders who desire to retain a talented workforce should tap into employee motivations and identify ways to incorporate these, where applicable, in employee retention efforts. This article highlights the key elements to motivate and engage research staff, especially millennials. Strategies that have worked well are highlighted from leading generational and change management experts.


In today’s clinical research labor market in which employees are constantly competing, staff turnover remains persistently high. While this challenge will never be entirely resolved, taking on a proactive approach can lessen the turnover burden, which can have a positive effect on business practices and employee satisfaction.

Keeping employees engaged begins with the hiring and onboarding processes. While employers are looking for candidates who will be a good fit, similarly, candidates are also exploring whether the organization is a match for his/her professional needs. Hiring managers should take into consideration the importance of transparency in the interview process and begin to engage candidates in conversations to identify their motivating factors early on. This critical step can set the stage for open communications that enable employers to identify a candidate who will best address the needs of their organization, and it also allows candidates the opportunity to gauge the environment that the candidate will experience if selected for the position.

Transparency and Engagement During the Interview Process

Interviews are similar to the experience of purchasing and selling real estate. The realtor shows the potential buyer the model home with all of the glitz and glamour. In relation to interviewing a candidate, the employer informs the potential candidate of all of the great things that the organization has to offer, such as a gym and free food in the cafeteria. However, the organization’s challenges may not be the center focus of the conversation.

It is important for candidates to understand what they are walking into, whether good or bad. For example, if an organization is hiring due to additional resourcing needs, this factor could be a challenge for the candidate. Future employees need to know the current business situation as well in order to assist them in making a decision to accept a job offer or not.  Otherwise, an early resignation letter could be the end result.

Just as real estate buyers may not be aware of any major issues until after the inspection or until after they have purchased a home and lived in it for a while, new employees start a new job only to discover major challenges after they have accepted the job offer or have begun working. Examples of challenges could include no room for career growth, low employee morale, heavy workload assignments, or work hours not aligned with what the employee was informed would be during their interview. The interview process should be a two-way conversation with candidates. If a hiring manager is pressured for staff, hiring just to fulfill a study assignment should be avoided at all cost. If a candidate is not a good fit, that person should not be hired.

During the candidacy review process, the hiring manager should not overlook a potential employee because he/she has had many positions with different organizations. Remember, there is always a back story. Organizations are hiring a different generation now; millennials. This generation, by and large, no longer stay in their positions for 10 or 20 years as their Baby Boomer counterparts have. Millennials have different motivators and goals. If a research organization does not have room for growth, an ambitious employee will leave. Hiring managers should ask probing questions about the candidate’s backstory and not simply eliminate someone because he/she has had many positions or had a short tenure with an organization.

Hiring managers should also make the interview environment comfortable so that the potential employee will share his/her employment history. Oftentimes, to avoid judgment, interview candidates will not share his/her bad experience with a former boss or organization. However, we’ve heard it many times, people don’t quit a job, the saying goes, “they quit a boss.” This could stem from many factors such as a leader being promoted too soon and not receiving adequate management training. In such an instance, the potential candidate should not be penalized or overlooked because of a management decision she/he had no ability to affect.

Motivating Employees

While salaries are a leading cause for employees accepting or staying in a position within a company, non-monetary factors, such as mentoring, title promotions, empowerment, involvement, appreciation, value, and trust, have also shown to be motivating factors. Although it would be ideal to meet every criterion request, compensation requests will always remain a criterion that is not easily met. Due to the uncertainly of the economy, compensation budgets will vary among different organizations. For some, it may not be feasible to offer more than a 3% raise. This is when non-monetary factors will hold more value.

A proactive approach from the candidate’s perspective is to come to the organization knowing the salary that he/she is comfortable accepting. The hiring manager should be transparent about the salary cap. Once the salary is accepted, it may be difficult to approve off cycle pay adjustments months after employment. A candidate may not be thinking about the consequences of accepting a low salary during the interview; a candidate may be more focused on just getting the job. Later, this can become an employee satisfaction issue if not addressed in real-time while there is time to negotiate.

Many organizations have talented staff; however, oftentimes only one or two individuals are subject matter experts on a process. When the knowledgeable person leaves the organization, the knowledge for performing a task or procedure has left the organization as well. Very few organizations have a formal training program for new employees, as hands-on training and buddy systems have become the norm. Leaders must provide tangible resources for a good training platform, which is crucial when staff turnover occurs. The training processes and materials should be documented and saved in a centralized location. Therefore, when the next employee decides to move on, training materials can be readily available for reference.  

If an organization has a mentoring program, this should be endorsed to employees on a consistent basis. If an organization does not, an alternative could be to have new employees connected to tenured employees in similar or desired positions. This provides a network within the organization and can help prevent turnover from employees who want to advance in their careers. For example, within a hospital setting, a research assistant may aspire to be a clinical research coordinator. The clinical research coordinator could serve as a mentor to the research assistant.

Collaboration between leaders in different departments or divisions can be an alternative to develop a mentoring program for employees who aspire to advance. This also provides an opportunity to cross-train employees.

Challenging work is said to be a great motivator for millennials, who become easily disengaged when not challenged. Leaders should be as transparent as possible about challenges and changes that are foreseeable. Transparency builds trust. Employees dislike receiving last-minute notifications of changes.

Many organizations have recognition programs to show employee appreciation. In some, the recognition program is system-wide. These programs are great; however, is it also important to have some form of recognition in place for employees within specific departments during the times for the need to have employees adapt to change.

Showing appreciation can be as simple as writing a thank-you note. This is significantly helpful during high peak work seasons. Thank-you notes let the employees know that the leader recognizes their hard work. In return, they will feel valued and appreciated. Otherwise, if gone unnoticed, the employee will think that their leader does not notice their efforts.

Table 1 provides tips to build employee engagement. Leaders must continually have one-on-one conversations with each employee to ask what he/she is thinking. Engaging conversations where the leader is focused on the employee are powerful. The leader must turn off the computer and close the door in order to give the employee his/her undivided attention. This shows the employee that the leader cares and wants to hear from the employee on what support he/she needs to do the job well.

In the best seller book, “180 Ways to Build Employee Engagement,”authors Brian Gareau and Al Lucia outline tips for keeping employees engaged. Asking employees, “What are you thinking?” or “How do you feel?” is a temperature check. As leaders get busy, it may not be possible to have formal one-on-one conversations with every employee. Asking these simple questions helps leaders show that they’re aware of the business situation and want to hear the employees concerns.  

Leaders must explain the “whys” as well as the “whats” (Gareau and Lucia 2010). In clinical research, changes occur daily. When there is a major change, such as a shift in a process or an employee being moved from one task to another, leaders must explain why the change is being made. It is important to avoid time-wasting meetings (Gareau et al. 2010). Team meetings are necessary in order to continually engage staff members; however, un-necessary meetings should be eliminated. All meetings should be meaningful. Certain information does not need to be disseminated in a formal meeting setting; such information can be disseminated via “drive-by meetings,” where the manager visits an employee’s desk to convey immediate important information.

Creating more teachers is another way to build employee engagement (Gareau et al. 2010). Leaders should ensure that training manuals and work instructions are developed for use during the onboarding process. Employees who prefer to take the lead on tasks and give directions and/or teach should be encouraged to serve as subject matter experts for training purposes. Employees who enjoy mentoring should be encouraged to serve as mentors. The employees who have been tasked as teachers or mentors will be satisfied by doing something that they enjoy. The recipients of the information will be satisfied by having guidance.

Engage Employees of Every Age

Leaders can find Anne Loehr’s blog, “Generations,” helpful when trying to understand the different characteristics of generations. Research organizations today are likely to have a variety of generations from Generation Y or millennials (1981-2001) to baby boomers (1946-1964). Leaders cannot manage everyone the same. When communicating with employees, leaders must be mindful of their audience. Managing people requires psychology because leaders are engaging with people who have different backgrounds and characteristics. It is important to create engagement and relatability.

Each generation has certain characteristics, and there are certain words that will appeal to employees in different generations (Table 2). When meeting with employees one-on-one, leaders should use the relevant words. For example, “What’s in it for me?” is a characteristic to keep in mind when communicating with employees from Generation X (1965-1980) (Loehr 2016).

Managing Millennial Employees

“Millennials are digital natives. They are the first generation that did not have to adapt to the rising popularity of the Internet, mobile technology, or social media” (Schultz 2016). Leaders should use this to their advantage. Table 3 provides an overview for improving job satisfaction among millennials. Schultz (2016) suggests, instead of calling millennial employees on the phone with feedback, leaders should use more digital communication.

Employee recognition has been a leading engagement topic. April Schultz found that “Millennials enjoy receiving regular feedback because they are constantly looking to learn and grow” (Schultz 2016). During meetings and one-on-one conversations, employees want to receive feedback and recognition. If millennial employees are coming to the research organization right out of college or are building their careers, they are not looking for a job to retain until retirement. While they are at the organization, leaders can help ensure that they are satisfied in their current role by providing clear feedback and recognition. Millennials always want to know where they stand.

Feedback and recognition should be part of workday conversations. This can be done during “drive-by meetings.” For example, when visiting an employee at his/her desk ask, a supervisor may ask, “How are you doing?” Such quick check-ins are also opportunities to provide feedback on progress in an informal setting.

Leaders should ask millennial employees questions and discover what motivates them. Aligning their interests with business needs will satisfy employees and benefit organizations. Getting to know employees, including their short- and long-term goals, will help manage employee turnover as well.


Major changes and lack of employee engagement within an organization could have a negative impact on employee satisfaction, morale, and motivation. While change is difficult to manage, trust is gone if the change is not managed appropriately. Finding champions to explain the business situation will help achieve positive results. As a leader, you have a major influence on the outcome.

John P. Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model for Leading Change & Change Management in an Organization, which was published by the Harvard Business Review, offers eight steps useful to leaders in clinical research organization for managing major changes:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a vision and strategy
  4. Communicate the vision and strategy
  5. Empower employees for broad-based action
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture.

Leaders should be strategic about communicating major changes to staff. Being strategic means using two-way communication to build trust with employees. It is very helpful to find champions to help develop and deliver key messages (Kotter 1996). Sometimes this is not possible, as leaders are given changes at the last minute.

When possible, leaders should think strategically about communicating major changes to staff. This includes developing and communicating a clear vision and strategy, and working with others to build a guiding coalition (Kotter 1996). The vision should be mapped out so that employees can understand why the change occurred. If the change is temporary, such as cross-training staff to work in another area temporarily, leaders should give them a timeframe for working in the new area. Transparency is always helpful. Employees must understand why change is occurring in order for them to trust leaders and not want to leave the organization.

Enabling employees to achieve short-term wins, such as meeting a tight deadline, is important. Leaders must continuously communicate the short-term wins to employees so that they know that their hard work is accomplishing a goal. Communicating the short-term wins is a form of feedback and recognition. Frequent verbal communication of short-term wins is important, especially when employees are not receiving metrics or reports. Leaders should not wait for a monthly meeting to communicate short-term wins. Setting the stage for frequent and open conversations begins with the hiring process, but it must continue to grow and evolve after the employee officially joins the organization.

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Tips to Build Employee Engagement

  • Ask each staff member what he/she is thinking
  • Explain the “Why” as well as the “What”
  • Avoid time-wasting meetings
  • Create more teachers

Source: Gareau and Lucia

Engage Every Age

  • Baby Boomers: 1946-1964
  • Characteristics:
  • Idealistic
  • Optimistic
  • Team-focused
  • Politically correct
  • Rally around a cause
  • Making a difference
  • Consensus-driven
  • Words that work:
  • We
  • Team
  • Consensus
  • Giving back
  • Generation X: 1965-1980
  • Characteristics:
  • Pragmatic
  • Self-sufficient
  • Resilience
  • Individualistic
  • “Me” generation
  • Play hard/work hard
  • Devil’s advocate
  • Words that work:
  • Results
  • Metrics
  • You
  • What’s in it for me?
  • Generation Y: 1981-2001
  • Characteristics:
  • Authentically confident
  • Well-educated
  • Tolerant and diverse
  • Community-focused
  • Tech savvy
  • “Green”
  • Global citizen
  • Words that work:
  • We
  • Team
  • Make a difference

Source: Loehr


Improve Job Satisfaction Among Millennials with Feedback and Recognition

  • Communicate more via digital technology
  • Tell the employee where he/she stands
  • Ask the employee how he/she is doing
  • Thank the employee for helping out
  • Align employee interests with business needs

Source: Schultz


  1. Gareau B, Lucia A. 180 Ways To Build Employee Engagement. Flower Mound, TX: Walk The Talk: 2010.
  • Loehr A. Engage Every Age. [Presentation handout]. Dallas, Texas: Baylor University Medical Center; 2016. 
  • Loehr A. Engage Every Age. [Presentation handout]. Dallas, Texas: Baylor University Medical Center; 2016. 

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