Recruiting and retaining staff in the pharmaceutical industry

Where to start? The recession of course! In 2009 the pharmaceutical industry was affected just the same as everyone else by the economic downturn. Biotechnology companies found their funding being withdrawn or just not being there in the first place, large pharma suffered from drug pipelines drying up, and the related services industries found it difficult to win work, with their margins being squeezed hard by clients who found themselves in a very strong bargaining position. From a purely recruitment perspective there have been a number of effects of this turmoil. For much of 2009 hiring permanent staff slowed, and then slowed more. People were getting to final stage interviews and occasionally even being offered roles before a decision came that permanent recruitment had been frozen. Despite this, many organisations, both large and small, found themselves in need of staff of all types, so interim hires boomed as head count was blocked. Large numbers of highly experienced people found themselves redundant, some for the first time, though for others in the biotechnology sector it was becoming a familiar experience.

Over the past few years, a sense of normality has been returning. Biotechs are finding backers, big pharma has been acquiring products, and headcount is getting signed off again as development is ramping up. So we now have fewer, hopefully fitter, companies, a resource of skilled candidates in many specialisms (though not all) and it’s time to think about how to fill the gaps in the workplace. Getting it right is not easy, and sometimes it isn’t cheap. Getting it wrong can be very expensive; finding you’ve taken on the wrong person not only means the cost of hiring them has been wasted, but the operational consequences in lost productivity, lengthening development timelines and morale can be major as the process begins again.

So what to do? As a recruiter, my obvious answer would be to ring me and help pay my mortgage, though there are other options. If you are looking to bring an extra person into your organisation, word of mouth does bring results. If it’s a role you are able to let people in the company know about, let them know! It’s a small world in pharma, and while it’s not quite true that everyone knows everyone (in some niches it can sometimes seem like that), you will get names that your employees know, trust and would happily work with again. Offer a small introduction fee and you will get people’s attention.

Advertising works; use your company’s website and commercial ones, and also consider the print and online journals that your ideal candidate is likely to read. Such advertising can be surprisingly expensive though, especially if you are not planning the volume required to negotiate discounted fees. Maximising success via the internet means optimising what you put out so that people will actually see it, a task that does require specialist expertise to be done properly.

Many larger organisations have the capacity for dedicated recruiters to be employed internally, or for the function to be outsourced to a service provider. Both solutions work well if you can be sure you have the volume of clinical jobs needed to be filled to justify the cost. However, whether you go down the path of dedicated recruiters or decide to task the work to human resources, they will need, in turn, to go to third parties in order to find specialist staff. That’s where recruitment consultancies come in.

The thing with recruitment consultancies is that we charge a fee, hence we are often considered an expensive alternative. Not necessarily so. Choose the right consultancy for the right position and you have an ally who will take much of the hard work from you, be well networked with the right people, and act as an ambassador for your organisation. There are a lot of recruiters out there. What there is not is a real one-stop shop which can reliably fill every vacancy you have (unless your company might be a consultancy offering something along the lines of pharmacovigilance, QA or medical writing services).

Consider cost against value. If you called thirty different recruiters you could probably find half of that number would agree to very low fees and you’d have an instant preferred supplier list to send a bulk email out to for every vacancy. Low cost and low maintenance, but you wouldn’t have the time to brief each of those companies on the detailed requirements of each role. As those companies’ consultants will be working on a large number of vacancies in order to justify their salary because of those low fees, the level of attention given to your roles will be as low at that given to all their other clients. Remember, that consultant is the first point of contact on behalf of your company with potential candidates.

While there are many types of recruitment offerings available, which can be tailored to your needs, the basic three are temporary / interim staffing, and either contingent or executive search for permanent requirements. Companies that offer both forms of permanent recruitment (and that really can deliver on both!) are few, though most of either type are likely to fulfil your contract needs also.

The market for retained executive search has changed over recent years. The need to pay a commencement fee to begin the search for a senior level role has lessened, as there are more very experienced and well networked recruiters working on a contingency basis. Why pay a large invoice up front when you could fill that role on a contingent basis and only pay on a successful hire?

Whichever path of recruitment you choose to go down though, please choose your recruitment company with some care. There are many out there and their quality does vary hugely. A good place to start would again be your own staff; ask them for recommendations of recruiters that have impressed them with a good knowledge of the industry and the utmost honesty. Once you think you have found a company worth speaking to, ask them to supply references, to agree terms from the outset, and to be quite clear on what they can’t do for you as well as what they can. To repeat, there really isn’t that one-stop shop which will be able to fill every requirement you have. A good recruiter should be able to advise you on organisations to speak to for areas in which they aren’t specialists.

If you view your recruiter as a business partner, they will view you in the same way. If you have a small list of trusted suppliers you’ll have the time to properly brief them with the full details of positions, background to roles and the personality required to fit well with the team, and they’ll be able to offer advice upon the pool of candidates available. Once armed with that information they can begin the search process, speak to candidates with a sense of conviction, and supply you with a shortlist of highly targeted applicants. It’s useful at this point to plan timelines, and agree dates up front for CV submission, management review and interviews, and you will have that person on board sooner than if each stage in the process was managed ad-hoc.

After review, the interview process for the selected candidates should be conducted with care. As well as having their potential line manager question them on their technical suitability, consider holding a competency-based interview with a trained member of staff, using a series of targeted questions to assess their suitability for the demands of the role. One step in this that remains comparatively rare, but actually proves extremely informative, is getting candidates to meet the team they will be working with. Hiring someone who will disrupt things or ‘just not fit in’ will be a big mistake, and can often be avoided.

Once a potential employee has been identified you need to think about the offer. Do you know enough about the candidate to be sure that they will accept? Ensure that you are fully briefed on points such as other pharmaceutical jobs the person may be interviewing for, their full package details (not just the base salary) and any family commitments that may influence their decision. There is often a degree of negotiation when an offer has been made, so be prepared for this, but go in too low and you risk losing credibility in the eyes of your chosen candidate. When an offer has been accepted it is vital that the candidate’s point of contact (whether internal HR or your recruitment partner) stays in touch. Candidates often have mixed feelings about leaving an employer, especially if it’s one they’ve been with for some time and have a sense of security with. At this point they are likely to be susceptible to a counter-offer, and having a contact to discuss the emotional aspects of the decision with is likely to be the only way of ensuring they do not reconsider.

So it’s day one and there’s a new employee in reception. How to ensure they stay an employee for a reasonable amount of time? Unfortunately it’s not unusual for staff to leave a new employer within the first six months; the usual cause of this is that expectations have not been met. It’s important not to over-promise during the interview process – if they have been told things will be in place, then they must be. Also, the first week is a bad time to find there are issues in a new place of work. It’s better to make people aware of these things in the latter stages of interview, and maybe suggest they are issues your new person could be involved in improving.

Any company that has a highly skilled workforce stands the constant risk of losing employees to their competitors. If you can afford to do so, the most effective means of assuring retention is obviously to offer attractive rates of pay and a good package of benefits. Many senior staff in the larger pharmaceutical companies have spent their whole careers with the same employer, partly due to the fact that other organisations just cannot compete financially. If you don’t have the budget for this though, you can still minimise turnover by ensuring your employees really value their roles and feel valued themselves. Ensure that there is the opportunity for training and development, and then that the acquired skills are made use of. Offer a clear path for career progression, whether it’s a linear one within the same specialism, or one that gives people the chance to develop in new areas and broaden their horizons.

None of this is rocket science, but any of this can be and does get forgotten from time to time, as an organisation’s focus on recruitment has to compete with a multitude of other pressures. Take time to consider how to recruit and retain your staff and you will have highly motivated people on board who are likely to stay with you for some time, and be amongst the greatest assets in your organisation.

Jim Gleeson, CK Clinical Manager 

Click here to contact Jim for more advice on pharmaceutical recruitment and retention