Opinion: Biotechs' Career Sites Leave Much to Be Desired

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While layoffs are still a common occurrence, the demand for talent in the biotech space has never been greater. So what are emerging biotechs doing today to compete for the talent their leadership demands?

I have spent the last 10 years helping companies of every size understand what makes them an interesting place to work and how to communicate those ideas to candidates. To understand the approach these companies were taking to attract and engage talent, I reviewed the career sites of 34 small-but-growing U.S.-based biotech firms, focusing on companies with 50–500 employees who have at least $50 million in stated funding and are listed in industry publications as “hot biotechs” or “biotechs to watch” this year. Here are my conclusions.

Are They Offering a Reason to Join?

Almost half of the career sites reviewed had little to explain what the company offered or provide a rationale as to why someone should consider working there. Four companies either linked directly to a list of openings on an Applicant Tracking System or an email address to submit interest. Ten companies had career pages with limited information of less than 100 words. Three of these sites had 15 or fewer words; one having no words beyond “careers” and a short video.

In one instance, there was more text about how a candidate could avoid recruiting phishing scams than about why someone should bother to apply.

What is interesting about these low-recruiting content companies is that many of them have invested deeply in their corporate site. These are sites with well-produced videos of leaders speaking over slick graphics explaining the basics of their approach to drug discovery or protein editing. You’ll find sometimes up to a dozen pages that scroll down through more in-depth scientific descriptions of the work, the drugs across various stages of the pipeline, methodology, facilities, lists of VC firms who have invested, their board, their executives, press clippings, mission statements, etc.

It’s clear that for a large segment of biotech companies, the idea and scientific approach are expected to do the heavy lifting of attracting talent.

For the rest of the companies with more than 100 words of recruiting material, there were some obvious similarities.

What Do Benefits Packages Look Like?

If a company lists its benefits package (33% of the survey group), it is listing a fairly standard set of programs: health insurance (sometimes with dental and optical spelled out as being included), flex spending for health coverage, disability insurance, paid time off, family leave (sometimes including time for adoption and IVF), some kind of employee assistance program, 401k/retirement program and of course, a competitive salary often with a bonus and equity attached.

Beyond the standard list are things like stipends for gyms and other physical and mental health needs, onsite gym, financial counseling, payments for cell phones, on-demand and online mental health services, working-from-home options, commuter benefits and professional development funds.

Recently, two benefits have started to become more commonplace.

The first is selecting one or two weeks each year when the office shuts down. In many companies, taking a week’s vacation means checking Slack once or twice a day and returning to a mountain of emails. But when the office shuts down, staff can take real vacations without worrying about what’s happening at work.

The second benefit is food. From happy hours and weekly team lunches all the way to an onsite cafeteria, food is becoming the “new swag.” Like a work-from-home policy, it has shifted from being a “cool and surprising” benefit to something candidates are accustomed to seeing on the benefits page.

Do Scientists Care About Culture?

The other thing companies talk about on their career site is their culture. This is challenging on a few fronts, not the least of which is that the idea of culture is never defined. When a company is stating its culture, is it talking about how it intends to act? A series of behaviors that came into being organically? A codified set of values that inform decision-making? Much like strategy or innovation, culture is a word used often without a shared sense of meaning, muddying the waters.

When the culture is described, usually in the form of 4–5 “pillars,” most ideas come from seven major themes:

  • The New. This is the idea that biotechnology is forging a future, and people are comfortable existing and working where the next step is not always crystal clear while the opportunity has no limit. This idea is expressed as: Rethink everything, invent everything, take nothing for granted, ideas come from anywhere, creativity, curiosity, build something new, we innovate and nothing is impossible.
  • More Impact. Think of this as a means of defining emerging biotechs relative to big pharma companies, where bureaucracy and office politics can make things feel slow. This is expressed as: focused on making an impact, impact obsessed, make a difference, invested in impact, accountability, own our success, revolutionary impact, change the world, hold yourself and others accountable, creating meaningful results and empowering.
  • Science First. Like “More Impact,” this is a rejection of office politics and corporate/academic hierarchies, expressed as: Follow the data, respect the science, courageous, accountable to science and data drives decisions.
  • Take Action. Further rejection of academic and corporate politics and structures, this idea is expressed as: urgency, act, driven, we achieve, we deliver, be all in and create value.
  • Help. This a support pillar for both the company mission combined with a call to urgency expressed as: honor the patient, they can’t wait, committed, we help, we care and everyone deserves to have a chance at life.
  • Interaction. How do people work together? How are conflicts resolved? This model suggests that smaller firms, where people must wear multiple hats, are in a place to create innovation through interaction. This is expressed as: collaborative, open, engaged, together, true collaborative teamwork, in this together, raise each other up, we embrace, we are one company, single mission, we don’t believe in blame, and respect, openness and support.
  • Morals and Ethics. Call this the “we’re not Theranos” pillar, expressed as: Integrity, stand true, act with integrity, speak the truth, trustworthy, scientific integrity matters and do what is right.

Key Takeaways

Switching jobs is a life-changing choice, but most emerging biotech firms are not offering the kind of information that makes that choice easy. The bulk of content is thin, meaningless and non-differented. When content exists at all, it offers reasons to choose the company but doesn’t say anything about why a prospect would choose this company over any other.

The choice is what matters. The difference between that computational biologist choosing you and choosing someone else has the potential to grow your business, but collectively, the industry continues to put the burden of uncovering and understanding that choice on the candidate.

For companies who want to hire quality talent, a shift is required. Without revealing material information, it means being more transparent about what’s being done day after day, how it is being done, and why people work that way.

All told, in an industry where recruiting is brutal at best, only half the companies are doing anything to provide a reason to choose them as a candidate’s next employer, and almost everyone has room for improvement in defining what makes them special.

James Ellis is an authority on employer branding, focusing on companies who think they have no choice but to post and pray for talent. He is the principal of Employer Brand Labs, a bestselling author, keynote speaker, practitioner and podcaster with a wealth of experience across multiple industries for almost a decade.

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