Site Spotlight: St. Lawrence Health Evaluates Soft Skills to Hire Strong Candidates
Resumes and traditional interviews don’t always provide a complete and accurate picture of job candidates, as St. Lawrence Health System learned the hard way. Seeking a better view of potential hires, they’ve created a process that appraises soft skills and traits that can’t be adequately assessed through resumes and generic interview questions.
St. Lawrence, a rural health system comprising three hospitals and a number of outpatient clinics in upstate New York, ran into a not unheard-of problem after bringing on a new employee: The new hire, who appeared highly qualified and aced the interview, didn’t turn out to be what they expected.
Once on the job, it became apparent that the new hire’s skills were not at the level the site was led to believe. Worse, the new staff member wasn’t receptive to feedback or corrections, Kylie Sands, a clinical research associate for St. Lawrence Health’s Clinical and Rural Health Research department, told CenterWatch Weekly.
It was this bad experience that prompted Sands and her director to craft a hiring approach that goes beyond the traditional interview questions and resume perusal and gives insight into candidates’ personalities and interpersonal skills. A small, extremely rural site, St. Lawrence Health almost always interviews and hires individuals with no clinical research experience (often recent grads or college students seeking internships) and they needed a process that would offer a better idea of how these inexperienced candidates would actually perform and work with others if hired, Sands said.
“We can teach research methods and regulations, but it’s much more difficult to teach someone critical thinking, communication and time management skills,” she said. “Knowing that it requires a multitude of skills to succeed in this field, beyond direct experience, we wanted to create a method to determine how candidates could apply their skills to the responsibilities in a clinical research position.”
Putting their heads together, they thought back to their clinical research professional certification exams and how they had both enjoyed the test’s case study component the most. They decided to break this down into a simple exercise that could be given to entry-level candidates and interns to learn about their thought processes.
The end result: a mock prescreening activity that allows candidates 10 minutes (without notification beforehand) to identify patients that might be candidates for a trial based on some background information and basic inclusion/exclusion criteria. The value isn’t so much in seeing how well the interviewee does in picking participants, Sands says, but in seeing how he or she responds to feedback after the exercise.
This activity is supplemented by deeper interview questions St. Lawrence developed to help them gauge candidates’ passions, ethics, comfort levels with specific health topics and ability to discuss sensitive health information with participants. These include questions about situations likely to come up on the job, questions about prior mistakes made at previous jobs and, Sands’ personal favorite, “What is your favorite thing about science?”
“We absolutely love the look in their eyes before they answer. We don’t care if they love bugs, or rocks, or chemicals — we love seeing their passion for learning and for science. If someone really struggled to come up with something they love about science, I don’t think that research is the right avenue for them to pursue,” she said. “We feel that many of these questions really are able to give us a good feel for the candidate’s personality beyond the prepared image they walk in with.”
St. Lawrence has been extremely pleased with the results. Through their overhauled approach, they’ve hired seven interns, with one coming on to serve full-time as an excellent clinical research coordinator (CRC) for four years before recently moving on to medical school, Sands reports. They’ve also hired two clinical research nurses and an additional CRC, all of whom have proven to be great employees as well.
St. Lawrence’s approach is working so well, Sands doesn’t foresee changes any time soon; it’s adaptable and can be modified if, for example, they begin to specialize roles more, she said.
For sites interested in taking on a similar approach, Sands recommends compiling a list of skills they want to see in a new hire, which may differ depending on the position being filled. Specialized sites, for example, may have more roles with tighter requirements, whereas smaller sites like St. Lawrence assign CRCs a range of duties, including regulatory, data and patient visit-related tasks.
And while the mock activity itself can be tailored depending on the focus areas of the site — such as those that primarily or exclusively conduct cancer trials, for example — Sands believes the fundamentals will be similar across all sites.
“I do feel the desired basic skills will be very similar throughout: attention to detail, critical thinking and time management are musts in our industry,” she said.
Sands recently presented the St. Lawrence approach at the MAGI West conference in Las Vegas, where it was a finalist in the inaugural WCG Innovation Challenge (CenterWatch Weekly, Oct. 24). She encourages anyone interested in seeing St. Lawrence’s template and interview questions to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: Potsdam, N.Y.
Current number of employees: Five
Clinical trial experience: Approx. 40 industry-sponsored trials and more than a dozen investigator-led studies
Number of trials: About five to 15 trials at any given time
Therapeutic areas: Rheumatology, oncology, neurology, COVID-19, pulmonology, cardiology and orthopedics