Whether you are a small biotech start-up building a team to innovate a new drug substance or product; or you’re a large pharma company helping to develop a vaccine for Covid-19; you will be competing with the rest of the life sciences field to hire top talent. No one wants to lose a qualified individual to the competition, but rest assured they all do, typically due to a bad candidate experience during the interview process. And you will, too, unless your talent acquisition philosophy is based on an efficient process that is executed with minimal deviation. When you identify an error within the process, the root cause should be determined and the change should be implemented immediately. This article will discuss simple but effective strategies to increase the likelihood that the talent you seek will accept your company’s offer vs the offer of a competitor.

Important Note: We are not advising to ask a candidate what they have previously made, as hiring managers should be aware of ordinances banning questions about salary history on job applications and during interviews

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At GTS Scientific, we rely on the process science of talent acquisition. This is key for attracting talent as people like when an accurate and reasonable expectation is set with timelines they can be sure to hit as well as expectations for the candidates interview (because they are interviewing with multiple competitors in your space at the same time). What will your interview process look like? After interviewing, should the candidate expect to make a presentation? Specifically within the STEM field over others like communication/business development the candidate pool has a chance to be more introverted and analytical. So if that means you add a technical presentation to evaluate the talent of the individual and have a non technical member of the team involved in the presentation to see if they can break a highly technical conversation into more understandable vernacular, that would be relevant for the technical openings as you see fit.  

When Hiring for Life Sciences, Dig into the Details

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1. Be specific in your job description

Ever had a company send you the copy of a job description for a role you thought you would be interested in and see the description hasn’t been updated since 2015? At this moment you probably think to yourself, has the role/technology within the company really not changed over the past 5 years? 

It is important to be specific about your job description. Here are a few points as to how: 

• Less is more in regards to details about the day to day functions of the role on the job description. Can there really be 20-30 bullet point relevant functions of the job or could we provide the candidate a good idea of their day to day functions in 4-6 key bullet points? (Perhaps with a percentage linked to each bullet point so the top talent knows which is most important instead of assuming the first is more important than the fifth). 

• Include Company values, culture, office hours. Is there a flexible/work from home option, are the daily operating hours flexible? These can all be competitive advantages for a workforce that more and more values “work life balance.” GTS Scientific is going to advise that when a “buzzword” like “work/life balance” is used, that it is then elaborated on and defined.

• But first you must define “work life balance” if you are going to use it on a job description.  It’s easy for any company to bullet point “work life balance” on a job description. It’s more impactful to define what that will mean to incoming candidates. Can’t your competition make the same claim on their job description that they also value work life balance more than other companies within the industry.

• Focus on professional development. What roles have people who started in this position 12, 24 and 36 months ago evolved into? The department of labor says that today’s workforce is changing jobs every 2.2 years. So is your new hire going to change jobs and grow their career into another role within your organization or are you training them to promote them for one of your competitors 26 months down the road? 

2. Use terms that are relevant to your ideal candidate

“Flow cytometry experience required” doesn’t exactly depict the complexity of the skills you are looking for when hiring top talent. This requirement does not depict how often and how recently you expect the candidate to have used said skills. “Flow cytometry experience required, designing no less than 4 multi-color flow panels multiple times a week (3 minimal) within the past 12 months” is a much better way of defining this. By doing so, this will indicate to your candidate pool that if they are not minimally qualified for the positions, they need not apply. It will also allow candidates that are involved in the interview process to come prepared with examples of the multi-color flow panels they have designed and how often they were responsible for such functions.  

“Previous leadership experience required”  is another vague bullet point we see on too many scopes of work. Make sure to define the type of leadership, for example you could say that they “should have been at Director level, leading 2 or more manager level reports at a minimum, total department size should have been 10+ including individual producers and/or contractors.” 

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3. Provide structure and set expectations

Many candidates, and most importantly the best candidates are going to be interviewing with multiple organizations. The candidates’ preference may be to work at your organization because they like how your innovative therapy impacts patients in the oncology field. However, your company is not the only player in the oncology therapeutics field making an impact on patients’ lives. Therefore, the candidates interview process and feedback should follow a process that moves swiftly and is efficient, providing them confidence that this is the way the rest of the operation is run. If the interview process runs slowly/poorly then isn’t it fair to assume that this bleeds into the way the rest of the organization is run? Simply put, set up and run a poor interview process and expect to get poor candidate interest and a lower offer acceptance rate than your competitors.  

In order to implement structure, make sure to set timelines with the hiring team to ensure that they have time allocated in the schedules to interview top talent. Using December as an example, know what the hiring teams holidays schedules look like. If there is a shut down for the holidays, let candidates know that they will be phone interviewing the third week of December (also, make sure to block time off on the managers’ schedules to ensure that they have ample time to complete these interviews). Let the candidate know their second interview will take place the first week of January and block time on the hiring teams schedules; as they will undoubtedly have a lot of catching up to do after the holiday shut down. 

Let the candidate know if the expectation is for an onsite interview or if the interview process will be 100% virtual, and confirm the candidate is comfortable with the process. When interviewing multiple candidates, schedule a debrief with the team after the last interview either the same day or the day following, and let the candidates know they will have a definitive answer the day after the final interview at the latest. Be sure to ask the candidates if there are competing offers (this way you can modify the timeline so as to not lose out on your first choice).  

4. Avoid yes/no questions

Interviewing 101, make sure you and your interview team are using TEDW questions. “Tell me about”, “Explain to me how”, “Describe a time when” and “Walk me through a time.” These are your questions that make up TEDW and shouldn’t lead to shallow answers with minimal content.  This should not just be a human resources or talent acquisition best practice. Your decision-makers in technical roles should be utilizing the same structure for questions that encourage candidates to talk about their experience instead of leading them down a path of one word answer questions. If you don’t coach the hiring team to steer clear of yes/no questions then you are more likely to receive feedback after the interview that it was “hard to get the candidate to elaborate on their experience!” A dialogue takes two!

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5. Take note of red flags

Operate under the hiring philosophy that it is less about what is on a candidate’s CV and more about how they describe those qualifications in detail. For example, when hiring top talent for leadership roles, “proven leader” and ‘ability to lead a team” are great qualities so the candidate should be tested on those qualities. If they can’t further qualify their leadership philosophy and cite specific examples with details on how they implement/execute on that philosophy on a daily basis this should be looked at as a red flag. 

Along a similar theme, address issues on the resume that don’t clearly define themselves. If a candidate appears to have a “jumpy” work history, verify why this is the case. It could be the situation of a company going out of business or being sold and if this is the case and the candidate left on good terms they should be able to provide references to validate that information. Research should be done on the back end to corroborate this “story” told by the candidate even if they have a reference willing to speak on their behalf. Do your due diligence!  That being said, if the explanation for career moves make sense, don’t hold it against the candidate as not all of these factors can be in their control. And current day career/job mobility is more common than it used to be. 10+ years tenure for the candidate’s last company is much less common. 

In addition to gauging for honesty in the candidate’s answers, test the candidate for any “non answers” that they are providing. An example of this could be if you ask what the candidate knows about the company (they should have done their research to show their interest in joining the organization and the team that they would be interviewing with). Look for things like reading back the job descriptions or reading back the website during this question which should show whether or not the candidate fully invested in their research or just were able to provide a surface level “answer” to your questions.  It’s always nice to hear about additional research and press releases that the candidate found and thought was interesting.  

Since we referenced a “jumpy” work history, it’s important to keep in mind that someone who has been in the same job for a decade will be less used to interviewing and when they are on boarded it might take them a little longer than others who are used to changing jobs to get up to speed. Keep this in mind when interviewing and when you bring them on board so as to have a consistent two way communication of expectations and how long the implementation process should take. 

6. Reach out to the candidate’s references

If your previous employer isn’t willing to speak on your behalf, then they are indirectly letting the next hiring team know that this isn’t someone that should be honestly considered. As a candidate you should approach this situation with the mindset that if someone isn’t for you, their sitting on the fence works against you. In many circumstances, a hiring manager will have a company policy that they are to follow, meaning they are not to speak with a professional reference on any candidates behalf. I’ve never known a strong leader who was satisfied with the performance of a member of their team that was unwilling to informally speak on their behalf for a reference. Keep in mind what a lack of willingness to give a reference might say. The “we don’t provide references” policy is not one that GTS Scientific agrees with and when checking references if the candidate has built strong relationships we don’t see this rebuttal come up often.  

7. Reach out to the Common Connections on LinkedIn

See who else in your network knows the individual you plan to interview and get their thoughts before or after you interview the candidate. A candidate may interview extremely well but you might be able to save a great deal of time, money and energy if someone you trust has worked with that individual in the past and can offer advice like “one of the best interviews we had in years, but once they actually started the person we interviewed was not the person that showed up on a daily basis.” References are great in this way that it can help you sort out who might be an exceptional interview vs an exceptional day to day contributor.  

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8. Use a scientific recruiter

By using a scientific recruiter your organization is ensuring a short list of qualified candidates as well as a streamlined recruitment process so that you can find the best hire for your role. Work with GTS Scientific today to get your next position filled. 

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