It’s Time to Get Creative Hiring in a Post-Brexit European Life Sciences Market

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Brexit and the pandemic continue to complicate flow of international talent.

In the wake of Brexit, there was a palpable fear across UK businesses of a mass exodus of talent, which could see the brightest and best minds leave for pastures anew. However, a research report published by Deloitte found that the life sciences markets in the UK and Switzerland retained their places as globally attractive hubs in 2021, and talent has remained interested in working in these regions.

While the combined impact of Brexit and the pandemic on international talent flow cannot be understated, there are several other restrictions at play impacting the recruitment market, particularly with regard to the in-house legal talent streams in life sciences companies between Switzerland and the UK.

The European life sciences talent route

Working out of the European headquarters of a well-established life sciences company has traditionally been seen as an exciting opportunity for lawyers. In recent years, a steady stream of international appointments has become the norm for this space, particularly between Switzerland and the UK. In the wake of the flexible working movement, this stream of cross-border hires has been further opened up, indicating a shift away from presenteeism and toward leveraging a wider global talent pool.

For example, flexible working has enabled Swiss companies to allow employees to work from different cantons instead of requiring their workforces to relocate to a corporate headquarters. Likewise, UK companies have largely transitioned to flexible or hybrid working models, and have used this as a means of attracting talent. In fact, a recent survey of 350 in-house lawyers based in the UK and US found that 66% would prefer their employer to adopt a work-from-home policy.

However, this has given rise to a number of challenges for the life sciences sector. For example, it has become more common to meet resistance on relocation strategies. Traditionally, lawyers would often commute on a weekly basis between where they live and the country where the life sciences company headquarters is based. However, there is now an increasing sensitivity to the domicile of an employment contract, and so these borders are gradually closing.

Historically, life sciences companies have reconciled this issue by hiring candidates using an affiliate as the contracting party, thus avoiding the new hire creating a permanent establishment for the company headquarters, as long as the candidate does not classify as a “decision-maker” under local tax law. However, the smaller biotech and pharma services that are currently driving recruitment activity do not always have such a sophisticated affiliate network, meaning this tactic may not be an option for them.

Getting creative with recruitment strategies

For life sciences companies looking to build out a diverse and internationally qualified team of in-house lawyers without an affiliate network, there are a number of tactics that can be deployed.

1. Keep your existing team engaged. With Brexit and the pandemic inspiring many people to reassess their relationships with work, leveraging new hybrid working models to retain a diverse team is essential. The keys to keeping your team engaged include flexibility, development opportunities, work-life balance, and fostering a communicative culture.

2. Collaborative approach. As human resources teams continue to adopt global mobility policies to widen available talent pools, a collaborative approach across human resources, legal, and tax departments is an effective strategy. Relocating a candidate will include tackling visa, tax, and employment issues, and having input from all relevant departments can prove effective at expediting the necessary paperwork.

3. Consider the appeal of temporary secondments or rotations. EU, EEA, and Swiss citizens do not need a visa when visiting the UK for up to six months, provided they apply for the Right to Work. This can be leveraged to provide a useful talent source to existing teams and can be presented as a strong developmental opportunity to the new hire.

4. Don’t ignore the local talent pool. Life sciences companies will always rely on access to a global talent pool, as a diverse team adds considerable value. However, companies should also pay attention to diverse candidates from their own communities closer to home. By and large, existing European markets will have a ready-made pool of diverse and internationally sourced talent, and these should not be overlooked.

Ultimately, smaller life sciences companies shouldn’t discount themselves from competing with international talent to build their teams in a post-Brexit and post-pandemic landscape. A creative and robust hiring strategy that helps companies stay competitive will, above all, have commitments to diversity and flexibility at its heart.

Lisa Owens and Jerry Temko, managing directors, in-house counsel practice, Major, Lindsey & Africa