A good catch

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a good catch

Keeping hold of key members of staff has always been an issue for successful organisations. To avoid head-hunters, Anton Franckeiss explains valuable measures to increase employee retention and satisfaction.

Although the pharmaceutical industry is one that consumers tend to depend on to provide instant cures or magical remedies to our all too human frailties, it actually operates to a longer timeframe. Any new treatment for our remedies may take only seconds to swallow, but will have been in development for many years, and possibly even decades. But despite its foundation in long-term projects, the industry also experiences higher than average staff turnover rates – a circumstance that the industry shares with IT and financial services. While the requirement for specialist knowledge and professional skills is a common factor across all three of these sectors that should not be ignored, human resource (HR) professionals within the industry should resist the temptation to believe that there is a single cure that can be prescribed and administered.

Although the analogy may be a simplistic one, especially in the industry context, adopting a holistic view that sees retention rates as one of the vital signs of the ‘patient’ (ie the workforce of each pharmaceutical company) may be helpful. Recent surveys, both by Pharmaceutical Field and by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, have shown a slowing of staff turnover rates in the industry. Yet the reasons may be at least partly a reflection of the broader labour market and economy.

In an era of slow economic growth after a sharp recession, employees are seeing redundancies elsewhere – or even closer to home – and may have drawn the conclusion that the metaphorical frying pan might be a happier place to be for the medium-term than the unknown quantity of the metaphorical fire. There is, however, no room for complacency here. If the factors at play are limiting turnover rather than actively encouraging retention, the ‘condition’ could flare up again at short notice depending on movements in the broader economy: a chronic condition, after all, requires monitoring and management to ensure that any chances of it becoming acute are minimised.

Road to recovery

The analogy of a chronic condition, however, should be challenged. A continuing situation of poor retention does not imply that this either must simply be lived with or will inevitably get worse. There is no reason that the prognosis should be gloomy, although a combination therapy approach will be required and the regime will need to be maintained for some time before improvements in the underlying condition are secured. The key to success lies in the depth of understanding that the doctor – in this case the HR functions of companies in the industries – can acquire about their patient.

Without research, dialogue and communication, companies can too easily assume that they understand the retention factor priorities of their workforce, while the employees actually see the outlook rather differently. A 2006 survey by Talent Drain, for example, showed that employees rank ‘cooperation’ as the second most important factor, while employers listed this in ninth place.

Employers also typically overstate the impact of pay and financial rewards, while underestimating the importance to employees of opportunities for personal growth. What appears as a mission critical role contribution through one end of the telescope looks more like one component of an on-going personal biography from the other. In an industry that embraces great diversity of roles – from sales to scientific specialists – there is likely to be a similar diversity of outlook – the intelligent response is to seek understanding rather than to assume that a single remedy can be applied in all cases. Feedback to HR from line management in different operational areas could be helpful here, so keep lines of dialogue open.

The right prescription

Employee motivation and engagement requires similar treatment; although recent surveys say suggest turnover is reduced, they also suggest what an earlier Pharmaceutical Field article, called The Fear Factor, highlighted. Pro-actively seeking to increase engagement will enhance the chances of turning a cure into a preventative approach. The highly engaged will be less easily tempted away when external economic factors change. Again, an appreciation of potential complexity will be helpful. Scientific staff may be balancing a need to supervise and manage others and commercial encouragement from the organisation to develop their leadership skills with their personal commitment to their professional discipline. Acknowledging such a potential conflict of factors will be a far more productive way of identifying motivational approaches than failing to address it.

There are also industry-specific challenges to address, one of which was highlighted in an interview between the BBC’s Evan Davis and GSK Chief Executive Andrew Witty in the former’s recent book, Made in Britain: “One of the things we say to our scientists is that you have to be comfortable with failure. [There are] great scientists in this company who will never succeed in their entire career … Of 10,000 new molecules that we might synthesise, so that we might create 10,000 possible new drugs, probably one will be a drug.”

Strategies that promote innovation – the use of multi-disciplinary project teams where each can make their own distinct contribution and gain inspiration from other – can help here in other ways. But also allow staff with specialist skills to receive peer, as well as line management, feedback on the value of their contribution. It was a point by Alistair Flaister in a People Management article, Organisational learning: The social network, when he made the important point that: “The real engine of creativity and organisational success is to be found in internal networks of friendship and collaboration.”

Line managers have other contributions to make, not least in listening acutely and in building a supportive and encouraging team culture. It’s a point underlined in the 2010 Work Foundation report, Exceeding Expectations: the principles of outstanding leadership, which identified two elements common to the approaches of outstanding leaders in creating a working environment:

The first is the need to develop an open and supportive atmosphere to create the conditions for trust and respect, and the second is to ensure the workplace enabled success and satisfaction.

Part of the latter element may require support from HR in terms of fresh thinking. Depending on the severity of the case, HR might also ponder the benefits of making a referral to a specialist consultant. Helping specialist staff to make the transition to a leadership role is not simply a progression or promotion through a series of levels of leadership. It requires them to make a fundamental transition from development of a professional discipline to that of a broader organisational and commercial role. It also requires the transfer and application of new behaviours that challenge and enhance their performance and contribution. Two other factors that The Work Foundation found as common to outstanding leaders is a willingness to be flexible in their approach to process, and a willingness to adapt roles to give individuals the maximum opportunity to achieve personal growth and job satisfaction. An organisational willingness to be similarly flexible in role definition and organisational design can support good leaders within the company to deploy this approach successfully.

Never say no

Think of a talented individual that the company should seek to retain, and then imagine how they might feel if they heard the words “I’d love to be more flexible, but I’ve spoken to HR and they said …” It’s also helpful to remain mindful that disengagement is unlikely to be a proactive personal choice – employees are more likely to become disengaged as a reaction.

Ultimately, employee retention is not so much a condition as a symptom. An indicator that employee engagement is low, that opportunities to satisfy personal motivations are too limited, that opportunities for progression are overly limited or unclear, or that employees are not receiving positive feedback on their performance and/or contribution when praise is due. The answer is not to treat the isolated symptom, but to investigate the underlying condition and develop a comprehensive talent management strategy that will systematically improve organisational health. Even in an industry where specialist skills are a key requirement in many roles, an employee value proposition and a recruitment strategy that identifies employees with a strong cultural fit are still important requirements. Any industry dependent on innovation and intellectual property should appreciate that human resources are its critical input. And most employees – who will, after all, have chosen to make an application to join the organisation and done so in good faith – are ultimately looking for something relatively straightforward: regular reminders of several good reasons to stay. That, of course, is easy to say, but there’s something positive to be said for making it easy to do.

Anton Franckeiss is the Managing Director of ASK Europe.