The Importance of a Diverse Laboratory

By Kelly Swails - October 04, 2022

Lab techs

At its core, workplace diversity is about creating an environment that accepts each individual’s differences, whether those differences are borne from gender, age, religion, culture, ethnicity, or race. “Diversity” can be a buzzword, but the health care community in general (and the laboratory community in particular) can and should move beyond that and work toward actually achieving it. Developing a diverse workforce is a worthy goal, but like any goal, it’s important to know the what and the why of the goal.

Cultivating a diverse workforce often starts with getting management and administration of the laboratory on board. According to Dana Bostic, MBA, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM, an assistant professor with the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Kansas Medical Center, “Leadership plays a major role. Diversity does not happen on its own or organically. Recruitment efforts need to be strategically designed with the intent of a diverse laboratory workforce in mind.”

And those efforts should start early. Traditionally, laboratory workforce recruitment efforts have been targeted toward those already in the workforce through job listings, career-oriented social media sites, and specialized recruitment agencies. While those are worthy avenues for recruitment, recruitment strategies shouldn’t target only those who already have their degree and certification—they also need to reach younger students. The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) has a Career Ambassadors program that empowers current clinical laboratory scientists to go out into their communities to showcase the laboratory and the work laboratory professionals perform. Tiffany Channer, MPH, MLS(ASCP)CM, is one such Ambassador. “Career Ambassadors can give presentations at colleges and universities with a diverse population. Even if the school doesn’t have a CLS program, we’re exposing the field to different groups and cultures. That exposure is needed,” she says.

Reaching students before they enter college is perhaps even more important. Angelina Knott, MS, CPC, business administrator for the Department of Pathology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, spearheads these types of initiatives. “The best way to pursue a diverse workforce is to first raise awareness of the opportunities available,” she says. “I’m currently in the process of developing relationships with local middle schools and high schools which will allow for direct communication with students who may want to choose a future career as a laboratory professional.”

The importance of reaching young students can’t be overstated. “I make it my mission to educate middle and high school students about the opportunities in the laboratory,” Ms. Channer says. “I make sure to tackle underrepresented and ethnically diverse communities so they can see these opportunities exist for them, too.” And efforts to reach these communities don’t have to wait until middle school—students as young as grade school can benefit from knowing about the profession. “We’ll be implementing a plan where we begin working with students as young as the fourth grade,” Ms. Knott says.

“We need to be intentional in our recruitment efforts,” says Ms. Bostic. “We welcome high school students from underrepresented neighborhoods to visit the University of Kansas campus, and we provide them with hands-on activities to further engage them about our profession.” Engaging students outside of the school setting is important, too. Outreach can be performed for youth groups, youth ministries, or non-religious gatherings. Key to keep in mind is that the laboratory can’t wait for underrepresented communities to come to them; laboratory professionals must seek out those communities and present the opportunities. “We need to cast a broad net with our recruitment,” says Ms. Bostic. “There are many untapped regions and communities when it comes to student recruitment.”

Representing the Laboratory, Inside and Out

Why are diversity and inclusion so important? Why should we make these efforts in the first place? It’s not simply so the organization can tick a box on a checklist. “It’s important for our workforce to look like the community we serve,” says Ms. Knott. Representation from different demographics of the population expands the thought processes of everyone present. According to Ms. Bostic, not including underrepresented populations or cultures puts an organization at a distinct disadvantage. “They’re in danger of not seeing the bigger picture,” she says.

Anecdotal experience suggests a diverse, inclusive environment can increase employee retention, increased productivity, and increased employee morale. If employees feel included, they’ll be more invested in themselves as well as maintaining that inclusive environment. “Diversity creates a strong sense of belonging whereby each team member feels safe to contribute different ideas and different solutions,” says Ms. Knott. “A diverse workforce can signal that an organization supports its employees and makes an organization an attractive place to work.” She adds that the opposite is also true, and that, “A lack of diversity is not only a detriment to the organization, but also to the organization’s culture and overall work environment.” This type of environment can impact internal relationships, as well as interactions outside the laboratory, such as patients and clinical care partners.

In addition to employee retention and enlightenment, another important aspect of diversity is representation. It matters, especially in terms of authority figures. “If people don’t see themselves reflected in the workforce or in positions of leadership, they deem it impossible to attain those positions for themselves,” says Ms. Channer. In addition, cultivating diversity within management and administration does two things: it signals that organization has made inclusive programs a priority, and it ensures these types of initiatives will grow and thrive into the foreseeable future.

Taking a diverse laboratory workforce from an idea to reality isn’t a simple or easy undertaking, but it is necessary for the laboratory to grow and better serve its patients. It takes commitment and planning to achieve a diverse workforce, Ms. Knott notes, and encourages the development of an outreach committee. “The group can establish clear goals, craft your message, and can begin to develop relationships that will allow you the opportunity to speak directly to the people you are looking to recruit,” she says.

Diversity doesn’t happen by itself, and it doesn’t happen overnight, Ms. Bostic explains, adding that intention is important when developing recruitment and retention strategies. “Diversity and inclusion should be a part of an organization’s mission and vision statements,” she says. With organization-wide understanding and support, a diverse, inclusive workforce has a much better chance of becoming a reality.

Kelly Swails

Laboratory professional, web editor of Laboratory Medicine magazine and editor of Lablogatory