How to Establish and Enforce the Chain of Command in Lab

Dear Dora: Lab Chain of CommandDear Dora,

I recently completed my postdoc (finally!) and took a job at a small company, who shall remain nameless. I am generally a very respectful person, both of people’s position within the company and their tenure there. However, there seems to be one employee who is technically lower than me by title, but who has been at the company for 6 years and they treat me like I’m their personal technician. I don’t want to be a jerk, but how can I make it clear that they’re supposed to do what I say, not the other way around? 

Newby, Scientist I


Dear Newby Scientist,

Congratulations on your new job. Getting your first industry position is no small feat in this job market (although there are promising trends in the labor market recently). You have probably noticed that the culture and the pace at a company are very different than in academia. Deadlines are much tighter (sometimes within hours), and the nature of research is product oriented rather than exploratory. It can take some time to adjust to the pace and needs in industry after having been in academia for so long.

Companies also have very structured reporting hierarchies. Officially you only report to your boss (and maybe his or her boss). You are not obligated to carry out orders for others even if they have been at the company for longer. It is one thing when they ask you for a favor, but it can be very disturbing when someone treats you like a servant. The best way to deal with this technician (and anyone else who mistreats you), is to stand up for yourself. If you have not done so already, I recommend clarifying with your boss who works for whom. Clearly, you do not work for the technician, but does the technician work for you? When technicians are shared between several scientists, you have to be very careful in how you manage them. In some companies, there are official sample submissions, and the technicians go through them as they come. Make sure you and your boss agree on how this technician needs to contribute to your work.

If you are a nice person, it is likely that someone will try to load their work off on you. To discourage them, be polite but firm. An example would be:

 “Sorry, but I cannot help you. I am very busy with my own work.”

– OR –

“I am very busy preparing samples for the HPLC, so I cannot keep track of the lab inventory as well. I thought that was your responsibility.” (Make sure the latter statement is true)

If they are supposed to help you, make sure you show appreciation for their work. A little bit of appreciation will go a very long way in helping you establish a good working relationship. (The good old “Please and Thank you” are still important, yet so few people actually use them)

It can take some time to learn to be assertive, especially when you are a new employee. Keep practicing. After some time, your colleagues will get the idea and have more respect for you.


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to [email protected] and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!



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