How to keep scientists keen

A couple of years ago, drug discovery company Evotec OAI, was losing more than a quarter of its staff every year. The HR director had tried all sorts of tactics to stem the flow, including improving pay rates, changing the bonus system, updating training and development, revamping the appraisal system and conducting exit interviews, but to no avail.

The company was losing 26.4 per cent of the workforce a year at a time when the company was trying to grow.

“This made it a double problem, as we were trying to expand rapidly,” says Martyn Melvin, HR director at the company. “We were recruiting more than 100 people a year and sometimes 150. We were simply losing too many too soon.”

It wasn’t that there was a flood of people moving overseas or to other areas of employment where they could earn more money – they were leaving for other pharmaceutical companies. So Melvin decided to change his focus. “We could work out why people had left, but we needed to work out why others were staying.”

An independent consultancy, Penna, was drafted in to help. Melvin wanted employees to feel comfortable about expressing their concerns honestly and openly and felt this would be more easily achieved if an external body was involved.

He embarked upon yet another staff survey and more focus groups, asking questions such as: ‘Do you like your work?’, ‘Do you intend to stay for two years or more?’, and ‘Would you recommend this as a place to work?’. More importantly, employees were asked to assess individual managers and departments. “We asked questions such as: ‘How do you rate your manager?’, ‘Do you get feedback on your performance?’ and ‘Can you get access to your manager?’,” says Melvin.

From this, he discovered that the main problem was staff management and the lack of visible career options. Employees liked the company and found the work interesting, but their managers were not providing the kind of career development they wanted.

“We have some superb scientists who are not so good at managing people,” explains Melvin. “What surprised us was that people felt they needed more support for their careers, and better communication. They felt there was more judging of their work than providing support and planning for the future. We had to show people that they could build a good, successful career here.”

Melvin was concerned that those managers who were singled out as not providing sufficient support and career development would be demoralised by their employees’ assessment. However, he says the response was more one of concern, and managers have been eager to improve.

Many managers were lacking any form of management training, so Melvin embarked on a new tranche of training. There were a lot of one-to-one coaching sessions for senior management, and middle managers have just been put through another series of training programmes. Work has concentrated on areas such as team-building, how to build high-performance teams and how to motivate staff.

Senior managers are now required to be more visible in the organisation, and there are rewards for being good managers, as well as good scientists.

How staff were promoted was another key area, as employees felt that certain people were picked for promotion, and the process was unfair. Melvin says there is now a formal system for promoting people, one that is much more open and fair.

Attrition rates are now down to 12 per cent (achieved over the space of two years). This has meant that the training budget has increased as less money is being eaten up by recruitment costs.

The induction process has been overhauled, with far more training now offered to new staff. “Many people had said they were in the lab working on the first day,” says Melvin. “Now, everyone is assigned a mentor to show them the ropes, and there is a more in-depth training programme that goes on for the first year.”

Melvin also made some changes to the benefits package, giving the workforce more choice.

The results have just come back from another staff survey, and they have mostly been promising. “Work with managers has improved in some areas, but others still need more work,” Melvin says.

About the company

Evotec OAI is a drug discovery business based in Abingdon, near Oxford. It has 650 employees, 200 of whom work in Germany. The company was formed in December 2000 after the merger of two organisations. One was Evotec, founded in 1993 in Germany, and the other was Oxford Asymmetry International (OAI), founded in 1992.

Melvin’s tips on how to improve retention

  • Listen to your employees – they are the ones making the decisions on whether they stay or go

  • Find out what motivates them – salary and reward are important, but so is understanding people’s careers and aspirations

  • Don’t make assumptions

  • Be persistent

  • It will never be just one thing, but a combination of factors

  • Be tenacious and open when you take these issues to management

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