Opinion: The Power of Credibility—How Emerging Biotechs Can Earn Candidates’ Trust  


Pictured: Two professionals shaking hands/iStock, fizkes

When it comes to hiring great talent, you may have encountered a common obstacle: Candidates just don’t trust you.

As someone who advises recruiters, leaders and businesses on how to appeal to top talent, I've seen this become a stumbling block for many. Think about someone you’d want to hire in the industry. Whether it's a chief medical officer who can boost your product line to new heights, an experienced product manager who can get you closer to clinical trials or a financial expert who can make investors swoon, these people all have a few things in common. They are rare, they are smart and they are valuable.

This means they also have options—a lot of options.

These people will likely have a direct impact on any company’s bottom line, so the fact that you want to hire them means plenty of other companies would also love to bring them on board.

The Pitfalls of a Candidate's First Impression

In narrowing down the field to companies in which they would likely be successful and satisfied, candidates like that do their research. They read your job postings, watch your videos, click around your website, look at review sites and press clippings and even talk to colleagues with a connection to you.

They will likely see a considerable amount of content about the amazing things you are doing. This is content that often has the feel of a summer blockbuster, implying that your company’s efforts will radically change the very nature of drug discovery and drug development forever.

It’s an exciting first impression. But where does the candidate exist within it? And how does this information differentiate you from other companies with nearly-identical visions of the future?

One way to stand out is in your job postings, but the descriptions are often written in a manner that seems purposefully vague. Though you may have nothing to hide, the descriptions are often written by people who aren’t 100% familiar with the actual work, trying to capture a role that changes by the month.

You may provide information about the benefits you offer on your site, but they likely sound quite a bit like the benefits everyone else offers. You may boast a positive culture at work without spelling out what that means, what this culture looks like or how it informs everyday decisions.

Review sites aren’t much better, as they’re often filled with people who seem to have a near-cult-like devotion to the company (without being clear what exactly it is that they like about the company beyond the “great people” and “great culture”) interspersed with one-star rants by former employees. 

By the end of their research process, candidates often don’t have a high level of trust that you’ve been honest about who you are or what it's like to work at your company because you haven’t given them decision-making information worth using. 

The Most Credible Recruiter Wins

Faced with a life-altering choice based on little concrete or specific information, top talent will likely be inclined to keep looking.

There are a few factors that lead to this situation.

First, there is a bifurcation of the recruiting process: recruiters aren’t technically savvy enough to talk about the actual work, and the hiring manager isn’t always good at describing the culture.

It’s like one person drawing the front half of an elephant and someone else independently drawing the back half. Despite their best efforts, the resulting picture doesn’t come together. This challenge isn’t exclusive to biotech but it is certainly endemic across the industry.

Additionally, when the candidate is faced with misaligned information from the first recruiter they spoke with and everyone else involved in the hiring process, who do they choose to believe? In many cases, none of them.

Second, biotechs often over-invest in explaining their approach or mechanism of action with expensive, lavishly-produced videos on their sites.  

But beyond illustrating the work itself, biotech websites, and specifically their career sites, are often lazily executed—pretty to look at but lacking the information candidates need to make an informed decision.

For example, one of the most critical factors in predicting how happy an employee will be is alignment with company culture. But what is the company culture? 

It is easy to list the “four pillars” of your culture. But it is much harder to define those pillars in a way that an outsider can appreciate their value or application. It’s harder still to know if these pillars are just pleasant words, or something people (and leadership) use to make decisions on a regular basis.

Are these statements genuine, or are they as authentic as words on a motivational poster? 

Candidates at this level are eager to understand the work style of people in the company. This is accurately conveyed not in grand statements, but in the micro-interactions of everyday work. How are disagreements resolved? What gets rewarded in a million small-but-meaningful ways? What makes up these gene-editing companies’ DNA? 

Company culture is neither good nor bad. What some appreciate, others despise, and vice versa. There’s a lid for every pot. But if the proverbial pot won’t describe itself, the lid is forced to act on blind faith.

The Bottom Line

Companies in every sector are facing a job market with candidates who are asking hard questions, such as how much autonomy employees have in choosing where to work or the company’s dedication to a healthy work-life balance.  This shift in candidate expectations extends to biotech as well.

Like Google or Apple, big pharma companies have the advantage of offering wide swaths of benefits and a promise of stability to create a sense of trust with candidates. In response, smaller biotechs and startups must find ways to describe the benefits of working there in a tangible way. They should be able to describe their culture in a way that allows a candidate to step inside and look around. 

Biotech firms can’t take a “follow the leader” approach to how big pharma communicates to its candidates. They can’t post pretty pictures and bland affirmations and assume talent will show up. Big pharma firms get away with it because of their size and brand recognition—a strategy with which only the biggest players can win. Biotechs need to stand up and say something real.

Ultimately, a lack of clear and credible information about why someone should work at your company undercuts their trust in you—which ultimately results in losing great talent. 

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.

Back to news