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Career Paths and Title Inflation in the Pharmaceutical Industry


Pharmaceutical Executive

Do’s and Dont’s while facing the increased war for talent.

A lot is happening in the world of Pharmaceuticals these days. Just as big pharma witnessed a lot of consolidation in the mid-late 2000s, the last few years have been the age of small- to mid-sized biotech/ pharmaceutical companies as they scale up for rapid growth. This is leading to some interesting challenges for them on the business and people front. The three realities facing the pharmaceutical industry today are:

Reality 1:

The sector is scaling rapidly and there are hyper-inflated talent markets where demand exceeds supply

The small and mid-sized pharmaceutical industry is in the midst of some fascinating growth and change. Those with a strong pipeline, situated in the hot talent markets of Cambridge, MA, Dublin, Ireland, or New Jersey amongst others are seeing some exciting growth opportunities and similar talent challenges. While some might be on the verge of a rich pipeline, others are witnessing a move to commercialization all of which calls for scaling of talent processes at a speed that has not been seen before.

Reality 2:

Employees want career progression and are not shy about moving companies for better pay and titles

The employee who is comfortably located in these markets with the right skills and experience is suddenly seeing the market open up with opportunities that present greater career choices along with significant powers to negotiate their way in. What they want is rapid career progression with the right pay that maintains their brand worth both from an internal and external equity standpoint. More importantly, no one is feeling shy in making demands on the titles they would like to see on their business cards.

Reality 3

Employers often succumb to pressures of attraction and retention in ways that might be causing bigger issues to organization design and employee morale

What the reality of the market and the employee needs means for the employer is a daily challenge on the attraction and retention front. Several companies find themselves with organizational bulges at the VP and director levels as skilled talent refuses to settle for anything less joining their company. This sets off a wave of internal angst and inequity as current employees feel disenfranchised if they feel the person being brought in negotiated their way to a higher title.

As organizations deal with these challenges, there are several steps or missteps that can propel them to a business advantage or disadvantage very quickly. Below are a few Do's and Don'ts as you look at this problem and try to solve it for your organization.


  • Clearly define your talent strategy
  • A few questions to consider while defining the talent strategy:
  • Is the talent strategy one where you will continue to ‘buy’ experienced external talent from established pharmaceutical companies or one where you will ‘build’ from within by hiring more inexperienced talent? Or a good mix?

  • Do you want to continue to offer frequent career growth to feed the progression hunger of employees today? Or would you rather have a flat organization with greater accountability at each level and lesser ‘noise’ around title inflation?  

  • Where do you want to position your organization from a pay standpoint? How broadly do you want your salary ranges to be and how flexible do you want to be in pay?

  • Define clear criteria for each level and function/role
  • Expectations for each level in the organization is an important first step to getting the career architecture right. Most organizations have these leveling guides but they often get manipulated or misinterpreted. Quantitative job evaluation tools continue to drive rigor where there is an analytical hunger for it along with the maturity with which these tools are used. Qualitative descriptors are being made more sophisticated by creating both a generic standard for the organization as well as function-specific guides that give greater specificity. If lateral growth and a broader portfolio of experiences are valued by the company, then career maps with journeys and stories are provided to guide employees and managers on how to shape the individual’s career growth.

  • Differentiate roles from persons while making leveling decisions
  • It is often easy to mix up the role and the person, because the person often defines the role. While this is true to quite an extent, it is more so at the top of the organization than for the roles below. Understanding the role and determining the level fit should be step 1. Rewarding an individual based on their portfolio of career experiences is next, for which there should be broader salary ranges. Finally, not succumbing to their title request (or demand) comes last. If the person is truly worth it, degrees of freedom should be defined for titles within that role, but if each individual demanding a VP title is given that for lower-level roles, then the vicious cycle of an expanding VP level will never cease. 

  • Differentiate performance and invest in your HiPo’s
  • Through level and title correction exercises, anomalies are identified and corrected. Often times these corrections are applied across the board. The key is to differentiate talent and performance well and reward the HiPo’s, manage the solid Bs while not giving away everything by spreading it evenly. The importance of talent review processes done well cannot be emphasized enough as a key to success.


  • Promote people in order to pay them what you think they should be paid
  • More often than not, managers find themselves bound within the confines of narrow salary ranges and bonus targets and then in order to give the employee the right reward from a pay standpoint find out ways to justify why they should be promoted. This is just bad practice and needs to be avoided. First, the role should have increased significantly in terms of responsibilities to justify it being at the next higher level. Secondly, the individual through a talent review process should have demonstrated performance and competence to be in that role and only then should a promotion take place.

  • Let your managers not be accountable in letting people know where they stand on individual performance
  • The intellectual debate around performance ratings seems to have died down for a while. There was never any doubt that frequent feedback is good for the employee, but the question remains-does the employee get frequent feedback? Do they get genuine constructive feedback? Or is it that the managers, afraid to lose their talent or look bad are still playing nice? As long as employees are not aware of where they stand on their performance, there will be noise and internal inequity as the ‘squeaky wheel’ continues to make the loudest noise and be heard.

  • Be afraid
  • People choices are the most critical choices. For fear of losing the candidate when organizations ‘give in' to seemingly high demands of the candidate, they do themselves more harm than good. No doubt if the candidate is truly worth it and deserves the title and pay, they should get it, but often the bar drops low and the rewards get handed out too quickly. The hidden costs of bringing a more status/title conscious candidate perhaps without the right attitude and the impact on existing employees are often not looked into because they do not seem tangible. In retrospect, these cause more damage than good.

This is a dynamic sector which will only see more talent opportunities and challenges in the years to come. Setting the HR processes and approaches right from the beginning will be the key to success, not just for the organization itself but the industry as a whole.


Tonushree Mondal is talent, culture, and leadership consultant for her company Tonushree Mondal.




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