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Becker - Forensic Science Communications - October 2003

Becker - Forensic Science Communications - October 2003


October 2003 - Volume 5 - Number 4

Research and Technology  

Strategic Human Resource Management in the Forensic Science Laboratory

Wendy S. Becker
Assistant Professor of Management
University at Albany
Albany, New York

W. Mark Dale
New York City Police Department Laboratory
Jamaica, New York

Introduction | Planning Strategies | Recruiting Strategies
Retention Strategies | Summary | References


Today’s public forensic science laboratories should implement state-of-the-art human resource management methods. One reason is to improve the retention of laboratory personnel. High-staff turnover impedes reducing the backlog in DNA processing (Rondeaux 2003). To improve employee retention, laboratory managers can implement innovative human resource techniques, often without significant cost. This article discusses specific staffing challenges that can be addressed using practical human resource planning, recruiting, and retention strategies for forensic science personnel.

There is no doubt that the infrastructure of today’s public laboratories should improve. Higher salaries for new and existing personnel, new and better facilities, and the increased use of technology should be implemented. However, these changes cost considerable taxpayer’s dollars and take time and resources to put into practice. Although government leaders recognize the value of expanding forensic resources, additional funds are difficult to come by when national, state, and local budgets are already stretched.

Although more dollars are needed for additional resources, current technology in human resource management can be implemented today for practical improvements in public laboratories. Several strategies in human resource planning, recruiting, and retention are suggested. These strategies are based on responses from a national, web-based survey of forensic science laboratory directors (Becker et al. 2003). These human resource management practices can have a direct impact on selecting and retaining good employees.

Planning Strategies

The forensic science community often considers human resource planning a well-developed process constrained by budgetary considerations. However, two strategies could benefit management in the planning arena even more: developing estimates of staffing requirements and determining the value of forensic services.

Develop estimates of staff needed.
To optimize human resource planning, it is important to understand the labor market in the forensic science community. Forecasting involves reconciling the gap between today’s labor supply and future labor demands. The demand for services includes performing analyses on all cases submitted to the laboratory. Because there is no agreement on the supply of forensic scientists in the United States (Dillon 1999), it is difficult to forecast the applicant population on which to draw when planning new hiring programs.

To surmount this problem, it is proposed that agencies estimate staffing needs based on a ratio of one forensic scientist to approximately 30,000 people (Dale and Becker 2003). A forensic scientist is defined as one who testifies on the analyses performed in a case. Estimates based on geopolitical populations provide a common standard that can be understood and compared across disparate units and agencies.

A recent audit evaluating the quality of forensic services in the United Kingdom reports that there are 2,158 scientists for a population of 60.2 million (Improving Service Delivery: The Forensic Science Service March 2003). We extrapolate that this results in a ratio of one forensic scientist per 27,896 people in the general population, which is close to the staffing recommendation.

Develop estimates of the value and/or costs of forensic science services to the community.
Private laboratories charge law enforcement agencies up to $3,000 for forensic tests, but state laboratories charge as little as $100 per test (Crime Control Digest 2002). The average value of a completed DNA profile is estimated at $500 per sample. Laboratories should determine the value of the costs and services that they provide to the community and then use these values as a common benchmark in resource planning and discussions with legislators.

Recruiting Strategies

Managers of forensic science laboratories can be proactive by using innovative recruitment strategies. Proactive recruiting is ideally suited for forensic science positions and includes techniques such as realistic job previews, internships, and shadow programs.

Use realistic job previews.
The recruiting process in forensic science laboratories can take advantage of realistic job previews that present the characteristics of the job to the applicants. Realistic job previews provide details about the job to help applicants understand the work and venue before they are hired. These previews should include all aspects of the job. Characteristics of a job that may be perceived as negative should be presented early in the recruiting process, including responsibilities such as overtime and shift work. These previews also allow the hiring laboratory to recognize unqualified applicants. Methods to communicate the preview can include videos, slide shows, brochures, presentations by staff, and written descriptions of the job responsibilities and qualifications.

Realistic job previews help ensure that time is not wasted with applicants who are not qualified, who will not succeed in all the selection hurdles, and who are unlikely to remain on the job. Research shows that although previews often do not significantly reduce the number of applicants, they do reduce the overly optimistic expectations that job applicants may have. Research also shows that job satisfaction is higher when a realistic job preview has been part of the selection process and that the employee-retention rate is increased by an average of nine percent (Cascio 2003).

In order to present a realistic picture of the job qualifications and responsibilities, there should be a full understanding of the long-term career aspirations of the applicants. For example, what constitutes an ideal applicant? Look at the long-term successful employees and examine their career histories. Use that information to structure applicant profiles and to target applicants.

Be honest about the hiring process.
Inform the applicant of the length of time the hiring process will take. Some laboratories require security clearances that may take six months or longer. Applicants may be unaware of the invasive methods required for security clearances. Civil service jobs require applicant persistence through multiple selection hurdles. Although these requirements are unavoidable, they slow the process. Managers should inform a prospective employee about the steps in the hiring process and communicate how far along he or she is in the process.

Be proactive in the recruiting plan.
A laboratory should recruit early and energetically. It can create new applicants through internship and shadow programs. It can develop liaisons with local high schools, community colleges, and universities and work with local educators to develop new forensic training programs. One such program was recently developed at the University at Albany and is described at: http://www.albany.edu/pr/ualbanymagspring02/fmbiology.htm

Retention Strategies

From the forensic scientist’s perspective, the increase in demand for forensic services creates an increase in job flexibility and a choice of job possibilities. For the forensic laboratory, however, the costs of recruiting, selecting, training, and replacing scientists can be extensive.

In a recent survey of laboratory directors, two of the major reasons cited for employee turnover were salary and personal reasons (Becker et al. 2003). This means that the early departure of scientists, some of which may have been prevented, was not identified in the laboratory’s recruiting and selection program. Forensic laboratories typically have extensive recruiting phases that may take as long as 12 months to process and hire an applicant. Salary, for example, is a known factor at the outset of employment; therefore, specific information about applicant salary expectations and limited opportunities for increases in pay and promotion should be communicated to prospective employees during the job preview.

Personal issues raise a more difficult challenge for forensic organizations. Attempting to predict a misalignment between a prospective employee and an organization should ideally occur in the recruiting and selection process. However, employers are limited by state and federal laws in the type of personal questions that can be asked of applicants (Gatewood and Field 2001). Specific questions about such subjects as spouse’s employment or family location are generally prohibited, for example.

The following retention strategies may be applicable:

  • Hire people with a link to the local area
  • Offer flexible work hours
  • Provide the opportunity to transfer to other laboratory units

Additional retention strategies follow.

Prepare a leadership team.
Train managers in basic supervisory and interpersonal skills. An unskilled manager can have a ripple effect throughout the organization, creating lower motivation and the loss of good employees. Frequently managers have good technical skills, but lack good interpersonal and leadership skills. Managers need to be rewarded for their efforts in developing and retaining valued employees. Forensic managers could work with local universities to develop a leadership-training program that leaders are required to attend in order to develop their skills.

Assess job satisfaction on a regular basis.
The purpose of an attitude survey is to track employee satisfaction. Traditional employee satisfaction surveys should be expanded to include an assessment of the interaction between managers and employees (Abramson et al. 2002). This is when managers who may need coaching and leadership development are found. A survey can assess the extent to which employee performance is recognized and rewarded. Job satisfaction surveys are only effective if leaders are willing to invest the time to act on the results of the survey.

Design the laboratory for team-based systems.
Team-based systems can successfully be incorporated in the laboratory. Employees are encouraged to assume responsibilities that are traditionally performed by supervisors, such as scheduling work and distributing overtime (Becker and Mathieu 2003). The team members should be involved in creating team performance goals that are aligned with organizational goals. All employees should appreciate how their contribution fits into the big picture. Team systems incorporate multiple sources of feedback that also include the customer. Team principles that depart from traditional hierarchical work-design models could be implemented in laboratories.

Know the career motivations of personnel.
Just as the long-term aspirations of the applicants should be understood, so should those of the incumbents. Career ladders and promotional opportunities should be developed for employees, including increased responsibility and challenges. Lateral movement within the laboratory can be established when promotional opportunities are not available. One laboratory encourages scientists to train not only in a primary area, latent prints, but also in a secondary area, footwear.

Opportunities for participating in research and professional conferences should be provided for employees to update their skills and technical knowledge. A continuing education program should be developed with tuition support provided. Flexible work hours, good training, and a supportive work environment should be provided when other work incentives are limited by organizational constraints.

Monitor exit interviews to identify patterns that cause unwanted turnover of employees.
Exit interviews can reveal patterns of concern, such as poor job design or specific management issues. Managers should examine common themes that appear in the exit interviews. For example, an external pay inequity problem was found and documented to generate a number of changes at one state laboratory system (Dale and Becker 2003). Employee focus groups can also be used to uncover hidden problems causing excess turnover.


Forensic laboratories nationwide need increased resources, including new technology and additional facilities. Existing salary structures are often inadequate. Long-term solutions should include changing the basic infrastructure. However, there are human resource planning, recruiting, and retention strategies that can be used now to improve laboratory performance and effectiveness.

It is proposed that developing staffing needs based on one forensic scientist per 30,000 population provides a common metric across laboratories. Likewise, laboratories need to determine the value and costs for their services. Proactive recruiting strategies, such as realistic job previews, reduce the overly optimistic expectations that applicants have and ultimately increase job satisfaction in employees. Valuable employees can be retained through the use of attitude surveys and by implementing team-based systems. The management team can engage in specific employee retention strategies, including leader training and the identification of patterns of unwanted turnover. These techniques can help improve personnel planning, recruiting, selection, and retention outcomes in forensic science laboratories.


Abramson, M. A., Foley, J. K., Palguta, J. M., Simpson, K., and Webb, S. The six key human capital questions facing government. Business of Government (2002) Available: http://www.businessofgovernment.org/pdfs/EBG_Spring02.pdf

Becker, W. S., Dale, W. M., Lambert, A., and Magnus, D. Staffing issues in the crime lab: National survey of forensic science lab directors. Paper to be presented at the Southern Management Association, Clearwater, Florida, November 12-15, 2003.

Becker, W. S. and Mathieu, J. Team performance. In: The Human Resources Program Evaluation Handbook. J. E. Edwards, J. C. Scott, and N. S. Raju, eds. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California, 2003, 285-300.

Cascio, W. F. Managing Human Resources: Productivity, Quality of Work Life, Profits. McGraw-Hill Irwin, Boston, 2003.

Dale, W. M. and Becker, W. S. Strategy for staffing forensic scientists, Journal of Forensic Sciences (2003) 48(2):465-466.

Dillon, H. Forensic scientists: A career in the crime lab, Occupational Outlook Quarterly (1999) 43(3):2-7.

Improving Service Delivery: The Forensic Science Service [Online]. (March 28, 2003). Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, House of Commons. Available: http://www.nao.gov.uk/publications/nao_reports/02-03/0203523.pdf

Mississippi: Budget cuts slow work at DNA lab. Crime Control Digest (2002) 35, 49:7.

Rondeaux, C. Awaiting DNA tests, cases pile up. St. Petersburg Times, January 27, 2003.