A remedy for retention

The business

AstraZeneca is one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies. Its products, which are sold in more than 100 countries, include therapies for cancer, gastro-intestinal disease, asthma, hypertension, high cholesterol, migraine and schizophrenia. In 2004, sales totalled $21.4bn (12.3bn) and operating profits $4.8bn (2.8bn).

The company, which was formed when Astra and Zeneca merged in 1998, employs 64,000 people and has its head office in Alderley Park, Cheshire. It employs about 2,000 people in the UK, with 60 in HR.

The challenge

“Sales and marketing in the pharmaceutical industry is an exceptionally competitive area,” says Mark Burton, head of learning and development and acting HR director. “For one thing it’s the most regulated market in the world. For another, every player invests vast sums of money in research and development, money that it really needs to make back at the other end.”

As a result, AstraZeneca requires a strong HR function that recruits, retains and motivates the best talent in the industry. Something Burton admits was not happening.

“We lacked a suitable recruitment framework, and we were weak on reward. We were seen as an overhead that was not delivering basic services to an acceptable standard.”

The solution

In 2002, the then HR director, Andrea Dunstan, set about changing this. She outlined four areas of focus: business partnering, HR excellence, HR projects and planning, and talent and resourcing.

In June 2004, after two years in development, the business-aligned people strategy was launched. In the area of talent and resourcing it revamped its recruitment model, introducing a preferred supplier list, a new IT system, and a refer-a-friend scheme. The HR department introduced quarterly talent reviews and educated managers on the need to focus on potential as well as performance.

Burton says: “Many companies try to manage their talent, but just end up with a list of names and leave it at that. We have regular in-depth discussions with our leaders of the future to plan their development.”

This runs concurrently with Inspire, a company-wide programme of individual six-monthly performance reviews.

At the start of the process, the HR department had 68 sources of people information. Burton recalls: “Many of our colleagues are field sales representatives and it was extremely difficult to deliver a good service without accurate information on issues such as remuneration, absence, training, and so on.”

So, AstraZeneca brought in software development company Detica to build a people portal where HR and line managers can now gain a single view of individual employees.

The outcome

More than half (55%) of new employees are now hired directly (compared to 2%-3% in 2003), the average time to hire has fallen from 90 to 40 days; and the new IT system, from i-Grasp, paid for itself within six months. In all, the changes to recruitment cut the budget in that area by 2.5m.

Elsewhere, the time lost to discipline and grievances has fallen by one-third, staff turnover has dropped by 2%, and the HR department estimates it has handed back a total of 9,000 sales days to the organisation.

For Burton, however, the most important outcome is that the HR department is now seen as a key part of strategic corporate development. He believes the evidence for this came at the start of 2005 when the sales and marketing functions were merged and HR was trusted to manage the process.

If I could do it again…

Looking back, Mark Burton would have done two things differently. “I would have invested more time explaining the whole process to the HR team,” he says. “We should have done more to explain the interface between the four elements.”

He continues: “In hindsight we should have put more effort into communicating with the rest of the business. Much of what we were doing was new product design, and it’s easy to assume it’s embedded and understood by the rest of the business. In reality it takes a very long time.”

Employee perspective

Sonal Riley is an HR consultant in the business partnering department of HR at AstraZeneca. She works with staff in the marketing company on their performance management, succession planning and change management.

Riley joined eight years ago and believes the department and her role have altered enormously since June 2004. She says: “In the past we were very reactive and service-oriented to the point of subservience. Now we look to challenge the rest of the business more.”

She continues: “For instance, while in the past we would have administered a pay review, now we’ll look at how it links to talent management and performance reviews to provide a strategic insight into how it can be done most effectively.

“I’m involved earlier in projects as part of cross-functional groups. This helps me to make a more useful contribution.”

Guide to iImplementing a recruitment strategy in 10 steps

  • 1 Appoint a head of recruitment and ensure they are focused solely on recruitment.
  • 2 Make specialists rather than generalists responsible for recruitment. Generalists may need to devote their energies to other issues.
  • 3 Train the recruitment team in techniques such as copywriting and internet skills and give them fast access to the web.
  • 4 Ensure all advertising – whether print or online – directs candidates to your website.
  • 5 Invest in a recruitment tool that has a strong track record of success at similar organisations.
  • 6 Use your website to develop your employer brand. Although most corporate websites are owned by marketing or IT, many visitors are people looking for a job with your company.
  • 7 Implement policies on issues such as diversity and privacy.
  • 8 Devise a candidate sourcing strategy that will balance the long-term supply and demand of candidates.
  • 9 Create talent pools – small groups of interested, available and qualified candidates who could be hired very quickly.
  • 10 Think about the success of your candidates beyond making an offer. Think about where they will be at the end of their first year working with you.

Andy Randall, managing director of i-Grasp,
a provider of e-recruitment systems

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