How addressing bullying in medical labs will improve overall retention

March 25, 2024

It is well established that medical laboratories continue to face an unprecedented staffing crisis that is putting a strain on patient care and healthcare systems across the country. While this shortage is being driven by several factors, including an aging workforce, a lack of training programs, and a significant demand for lab services, these factors are also combining to create increasing anecdotal reports of bullying.

“This issue of bullying or creating less than welcoming work environments in healthcare is not unique to labs, but it is a problem we’re hearing more and more about from the professionals we work with and is something we feel has been underreported,” said Jon Harol, President of Lighthouse Lab Services, a Charlotte, North Carolina–based laboratory management, recruiting, and consulting firm.

Last fall, Harol and Lighthouse conducted an informal poll inviting lab professionals to weigh in on whether they’ve ever witnessed or personally experienced bullying in the lab during their careers. Out of 341 total respondents, 75 percent said bullying in the lab is a real concern. Just 14 percent said they have never experienced bullying, while the remaining 11 percent said they were unsure. See Figure 1.


This response, combined with continued reports of burnout and dissatisfaction, is an obvious thorn in the efforts of labs to increase the long-term recruitment pipeline while improving the retention of their existing employees. However, by acknowledging and addressing these concerns head-on, labs can be part of the solution to building a more sustainable future for the patients they serve.

Existing concerns

As part of Lighthouse’s 2023 annual survey of wages and morale among laboratory professionals, the dual issues of limited staffing and stagnating compensation routinely were cited by respondents as the chief reasons for dissatisfaction with their careers. But a majority of the 1,062 respondents (52 percent) also said they are overworked relative to the responsibilities of their role, which in turn creates friction between bench-level employees and managers.

The hierarchical structure of labs and healthcare systems in general contributes to the prevalence of bullying, according to some survey respondents who chose to leave follow-up comments. Subordinates may be afraid to report incidents due to concerns about retaliation, damaging their career prospects, or simply not being taken seriously. The culture of silence surrounding instances of bullying perpetuates the problem, allowing it to fester and persist.

“It’s very difficult to get decent supervisors who will work the bench, which helps with morale,” reported one season tech, who asked to remain anonymous. “A bad manager can take a good staff and destroy it, causing the best employees to flee and the remainder to lose all motivation.”

Others cited a lack of communication from their managers regarding administrative changes that caused their working relationships to deteriorate. “Our managers don’t relay anything from management or nursing and that fails to create a harmonious spirit,” another lab professional responded.

Another form of bullying cited by some lab professionals is lateral violence, which involves colleagues attacking each other, most often with verbal or emotional abuse. This behavior can manifest in various ways, from condescending remarks and gossip to workplace sabotage and exclusion.

However, while such behaviors are a concern in medical labs and must be addressed, many are quick to point out that these problems exist across the spectrum in healthcare settings and are not unique to the laboratory setting. According to a 2021 Joint Commission report, 44 percent of nursing staff members report having been bullied in a healthcare setting.

Rick Panning, Senior Healthcare Consultant for ARUP Laboratories, said in response to the Lighthouse poll that while he believes bullying exists in labs, those examining the issue must be careful not to generalize or overstate the problem.

“I think a lot of the issue has to do with the example set by leadership,” Panning said. “I really don’t believe we can generalize on this topic.” 

Addressing bullying to improve retention and morale

Addressing the issue of bullying in medical labs in order to improve overall morale and retention will require a multi-faceted approach that begins with cultivating a working culture of openness and support. Encouraging employees to report incidents without fear of reprisal is crucial in dismantling the walls of silence surrounding bullying. Establishing confidential reporting mechanisms, such as hotlines or anonymous surveys, can also provide an avenue for victims to share their experiences.

Education also plays a vital role in preventing bullying. Healthcare professionals should undergo training to recognize the signs of bullying and learn effective strategies to address and prevent such behavior. Leadership training is equally essential to ensure that those in supervisory positions understand their role in fostering a positive and respectful workplace culture.

But, as mentioned previously, bullying is often a symptom of other pervasive issues such as staffing constraints and stagnating compensation, which in turn can create increased stress that leads to workplace conflicts. With that in mind, here are proactive steps labs can take to improve overall morale and employee retention within their labs.

Create clear growth paths

Establishing a well-defined growth path for employees in your medical lab is vital in retaining top talent and ensuring they feel like a part of your organization’s future, Harol notes. This can be done by:

  • Outlining promotion criteria: Clearly outline the criteria for promotions to various roles within the lab. For example, achieving specific performance targets or obtaining new certifications may be goals on career ladders you create for your employees.
  • Non-CLIA-designated roles: Develop supervisor or manager positions that offer advancement opportunities beyond just CLIA-designated roles. This is key to making employees feel they have something to progress toward instead of being stuck on a hamster wheel with little hope of advancement.

Invest in professional development and training

Promoting employee growth and development is essential for their career progression and overall engagement. By investing in skill training, employees can grow alongside your lab and take on new responsibilities. This can be achieved as follows:


  • Mentorship programs: Create a mentorship program within the lab where experienced managers and supervisors can train newer employees and facilitate their skill development.
  • Industry-wide welcome: Welcome individuals from non-traditional pathways into the industry and offer training in specialized areas to enhance their skill set.

Harol noted that many new techs joined the industry during the pandemic through pathways that didn’t involve graduating from two- or four-year laboratory-centric programs. While their knowledge may be specialized in certain lines of testing, these individuals also should be viewed as a boon to the workforce who can be retrained to remain in the industry long term.

“Treat new employees well to help make sure they want to stay in the industry,” Harol said. “Investing in them early on will show that you care about their growth and their career in general.”

Stay competitive in the job market

Labs should regularly evaluate and adjust compensation, benefits, and growth opportunities to remain competitive with other employers. Consider the following:

  • Market analysis: Examine what competitors offer in terms of salary, benefits, and professional development opportunities to stay competitive.
  • Internal review: Continuously assess the benefits package for current employees to ensure it remains attractive compared to external offers. You can also survey employees to gain a better understanding of their perception of your lab’s benefits and compensation.

“You have to stay competitive, or you will see your top talent jump to competitors,” says Joe Kessler, Director of Recruiting for Lighthouse Lab Services. “The days of pizza parties being an acceptable reward or bonus are long over.”

Prioritize employee engagement

Engaged employees outperform their disengaged counterparts by as much as 28 percent, Harol noted, making employee engagement a priority. Lab managers and leadership should:


  • Be present and listen: Regularly engage with employees, attend to their concerns, and actively listen to their feedback to make them feel valued.
  • Provide transparent leadership: Keep employees informed about the company’s performance, goals, and plans to instill a sense of investment in the organization’s future.

Looking ahead

By addressing bullying in laboratories head-on, the industry and its stakeholders not only improve the well-being of the professionals who dedicate their lives to providing accurate test results but also enhance patient outcomes. Promoting a culture of respect and support while also working to improve overall working conditions and morale can contribute to a more positive and effective lab environment, where bench-level techs and managers alike can thrive. By shining a light on this issue and talking about its impact openly, we can collectively pave the way for a healthier future in healthcare.


1.        Quick Safety 24: Bullying has no place in health care (Updated June 2021). Accessed February 28, 2024.