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October 27, 2003
Volume 81, Number 43
CENEAR 81 43 pp. 61-67
ISSN 0009-2347

How ‘Best Firms’ Retain Chemists

Employees tend to stay at companies that provide stability and a fair, open environment

Louisa Wray Dalton, C&EN WASHINGTON

LASTING PERFORMANCE Barker celebrated her 20th year with Alcon Laboratories last month. ALCON PHOTO
Some people just love their jobs. once they start talking about it, it’s hard for them to stop. “Did I mention Alcon flex time? Did I mention short-term disability insurance? Did I mention retiree medical benefits permanently secured by an irrevocable trust?” says Ronnie C. Barker, a chemist in the research and development department at Alcon Laboratories in Fort Worth, Texas. Barker laughs at her own enthusiasm, but she sincerely believes that she has found a terrific place to work. It's why she has stayed for 20 years. "My highest praise could be that in two years, when my adult daughter relocates with her family back to Texas, I hope she will find a position at Alcon."

So what does a company do to inspire such loyalty? C&EN asked a few employees at firms that made Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" and "50 Best Companies for Minorities" and Working Mother magazine's "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers" in 2003. Because firms on those lists tend to be large companies, C&EN also asked readers at small and midsized companies to drop us a line if they worked for a great company.

"The company culture is geared toward acknowledging the value of the employees," says Bill Eastin, the chemist at Xandex, in Petaluma, Calif. ("Yes, the chemist," he says.) Xandex is a small, family-run firm that makes machines for marking defective semiconductor chips, and Eastin is in charge of the ink laboratory. "You can tell they have a good culture just because of the way they retain employees," he says.

Eastin compares Xandex to a company he used to work for. "It was a perfect example of how not to run a company," he recalls. "The CEO obviously didn't care at all about his employees. It was similar to Xandex as far as size goes. But you didn't get any benefits; you didn't get any recognition if you did anything good. It was tough to get the guy to even give you a raise on time. So I've seen both ends of the spectrum, and that's why I am able to appreciate a good thing when I see it."


Some of the firms on the "best" lists are established winners. They've proven themselves to be good workplaces in past years and, despite intense competition, have continually improved their workplaces and have been honored yet again. C&EN has already highlighted many of the firms that made Fortune's andWorking Mother's lists in 2003. In 2000, C&EN spoke with representatives at Pfizer, Schering-Plough, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Eli Lilly, DuPont, and Novartis (C&EN, Oct. 2, 2000, page 167). In 2001, C&EN described the workplaces at Eli Lilly, Merck, Procter & Gamble, Lucent, and Agilent (C&EN, Oct. 15, 2001, page 47). And in 2002, C&EN spoke to Corning, Aventis, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Agilent (C&EN, Oct. 28, 2002, page 75).

SUCH AN ENVIRONMENT is exactly what companies should avoid, says Mary C. Clark, executive director of Winning Workplaces, a nonprofit organization that helps both nonprofit and for-profit firms create better work environments. Clark says there are two core elements in a positive workplace: an environment of trust, respect, and fairness and open communication.

The first element--an environment of trust, respect, and fairness--"plays itself out in all sorts of ways," Clark says. "It has to do with how you perceive employees as part of an organization--whether you see them as contributors or as costs. It has to do with being intentional about how you bring someone into an environment--orienting them so that they know what to expect and how to succeed." It also has to do with recognizing the needs of individuals, she says, and offering ways to meet those needs.

For example, S. C. Johnson calls itself "a family company." Anna Waters, human resources manager, says she believes that S. C. Johnson made both Fortune's and Working Mother's lists "because we listen to our employees' needs and develop cutting- edge work/life programs."

Eastman Kodak has defined six values of the company, says David Kassnoff, manager of communications and public affairs for global diversity at Kodak. "The most important of them is 'respect for the dignity of the individual.'"

The second core element, according to Clark, is open communication. "It includes engaging employees. It puts in place things that share information about what's going on. It's something that most organizations have a very hard time with," Clark says. She sees it working when people understand it is important to have regular catch-up meetings, and when they set up something like an employee forum, where employees can raise and get responses to questions and concerns about their work lives.

"There is an expectation that people will contribute and be successful. We put a high value on people and their science."
One key way that companies are becoming more open is in sharing their financial results with employees. "It's a relatively new phenomenon, this openness," Clark says. Traditionally, the boss gathered information, made decisions, and told the employees what the decision was. That would often lead to surprises and employees feeling imposed upon. But employers who are more open "are surprised by how savvy their employees are," Clark says. Especially in a changing business market, Clark says, employees can often be a part of the reshaping that needs to go on when a company has to redefine itself.

Eastin says that at Xandex's quarterly company meetings, "they don't keep the employees in the dark. They actually give you updates. It is really good for employees to feel like they are a part of the whole process of trying to make the company better. They are actually in the loop, knowing where the company is going and what direction we are headed."

Chemistry-Related Best Employers
100 BEST COMPANIES TO WORK FOR (as ranked in Fortune, Jan. 20, 2003)
21. Pfizer, New York City
27. W. L. Gore & Associates, Newark, Del.
29. S. C. Johnson & Son, Racine, Wis.
31. Merck, Whitehouse Station, N.J.
33. Agilent Technologies, Palo Alto, Calif.
40. Alcon Laboratories, Fort Worth, Texas
46. Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati
55. Colgate-Palmolive, New York City
57. Eli Lilly, Indianapolis
80. Genentech, South San Francisco
82. ARUP Laboratories, Salt Lake City
84. Baxter International, Deerfield, Ill.
99. Guidant, Indianapolis
50 BEST COMPANIES FOR MINORITIES (as ranked in Fortune, July 7, 2003)
16. Colgate-Palmolive
21. Lucent Technologies, Murray Hill, N.J.
34. Eastman Kodak, Rochester, N.Y.
39. Procter & Gamble
46. Avon Products, New York City
48. Abbott Laboratories, Abbott Park, Ill.
50. S. C. Johnson & Son
100 BEST COMPANIES FOR WORKING MOTHERS (as ranked in Working Mother, October 2003)
Abbott Laboratories (in top 10)
AstraZeneca, Wilmington, Del.
Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Bridgewater, N.J.
Avon Products
BP America, Chicago
Bristol-Myers Squibb, New York City (in top 10)
Corning, Corning, N.Y.
DuPont, Wilmington, Del.
Eastman Kodak
Eli Lilly (in top 10)
GlaxoSmithKline, Philadelphia
Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
IBM, Armonk, N.Y. (in top 10)
Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, N.J.
Lucent Technologies
Novartis Pharmaceuticals, East Hanover, N.J.
S. C. Johnson & Son (in top 10)
Schering-Plough, Kenilworth, N.J.
Wyeth, Madison, N.J.
Jerry Skotnicki, a director of medicinal chemistry in the department of chemical and screening sciences at Wyeth, in Pearl River, N.Y., describes the "high-octane-energy can-do atmosphere" at his firm. Skotnicki is starting his 25th year at Wyeth. "One of the key features that I find is that we are expected to be involved in the process; involved in the decision-making; involved in the generation of new ideas, new approaches, and new technologies. And I want to emphasize the word 'expected' as opposed to 'allowed to.' It is the way our culture is set up; there is an expectation that people will contribute and be successful. We put a high value on people and their science."

To facilitate communication, Clark emphasizes the importance of the role of the direct supervisor. "That relationship [between employee and direct supervisor] is pivotal to creating a good working environment," she says.

Alireza Ebrahim is manager of research and development at Bio-Rad Laboratories in Irvine, Calif. He manages three group leaders, who in turn supervise scientists, and he himself reports to a division manager. At least every other week, "we have one-on-one meetings with our direct reports. Through those meetings, we learn what they are doing, and if they are overloaded," he explains. "We listen to their frustrations and achievements, and based on the input we get from that meeting, we try to change or reprioritize their assignments to make sure that they can still enjoy life and work.

"A lot of coaching and mentoring goes on in these meetings. We spend about half an hour to an hour. Sometimes we go over timelines or the budget for a project, but we spend a lot of time listening to their professional and personal problems. I meet with my division manager every other week. I meet with my three group leaders, and I also meet with my administrative assistant. It is not a requirement. This is something that has been promoted at Bio-Rad, and it has worked very well."

 MANY EMPLOYEES also mention how much they like having accessibility to upper management. "There is a difference between the sensitivity training that goes on at most places and the reality of being responsive to subordinates far, far down the line," Alcon's Barker says. "I approached the highest ranking woman I know in the R&D hierarchy last October, with the request that a room be set aside for breast-feeding women who had to return to work at Alcon but who wanted to continue nursing. By Christmas, the first of three such rooms was ready. When I wrote to thank the CEO, he thanked me for bringing it to his attention."

Good communication also has to do with providing ways for employees to resolve their concerns. Kodak has implemented a new program, now one-and-a-half-years old, called Resolution Support Services. According to Kassnoff, employees who disagree with a supervisor's policy decision regarding the employee's performance or a disciplinary matter can raise an issue and bring it before either a peer panel or a single adjudicator (an experienced manager from another area of the company). The employee shares his or her side of the story; the manager tells the other side. "And the panel's role is to decide," Kassnoff says. "Was Kodak's policy fairly applied in this particular employee's instance?" At least four employees have gotten their jobs back through resolution support services, he adds.

But communication and respectful atmosphere aside, some chemists cite job security as one of the primary reasons they choose to stay with their employers. "If you talk to 100 people at Bio-Rad," Ebrahim says, "I'm sure 95 of them will tell you that job stability is one of the top three benefits of working at Bio-Rad."

Ebrahim says that, at the moment, and particularly in clinical diagnostics and the life sciences, job security isn't so easy to come by. But because of good management decisions and employee productivity at Bio-Rad, "I can tell you with a high level of confidence that there are no hallway conversations, no cafeteria conversations about whose position is going to be eliminated--and that has been the case at Bio-Rad for many, many years," Ebrahim says. It means that employees don't have to struggle with the symptoms of downsizing: deferred projects and decisions, few growth opportunities, more reliance on outsourcing, and a deemphasis on R&D.

At Alcon, "job security enables an atmosphere of collegial respect that positively colors day-to-day work. When you're not worried about your job, you can afford to be a little kinder and more responsive to your colleagues. Your emotional energies are not short-circuited by fear or competition for dwindling jobs," Barker says.

Hong Yong, a chemist in the metabolic disease area at Abbott Laboratories, says that because of her stable working environment, "I feel safe here."

Job security also allows employees to think ahead. And if they can see opportunities for advancement, it encourages them to stay and help the company grow. "I can see my future here," Yong says. "I got my master's degree in chemistry, but at Abbott, you can be promoted to the Ph.D. level" even without a Ph.D., she says. The prospect makes her comfortable with the idea of staying at Abbott.

A savvy employer will think ahead and do what it takes to keep a valued employee. Abbott sponsored Yong's green card, illustrating from the beginning her value to the company. At Bio-Rad, "there is a lot of emphasis on growing from within," Ebrahim says. To make sure that an employee's talents are not wasted, he says, Bio-Rad may even create a new job entirely. S. C. Johnson offers job rotations, which makes employees' work both more challenging and more interesting, and develops a strong competency base within the firm.

For chemists in particular, providing challenging work is one of the best ways to keep them around. Edward K. Chess, senior director of research in the physical and chemical sciences and technology resources department at Baxter Healthcare in Round Lake, Ill., says that his department "provides an environment that is rich with opportunities to work on challenging assignments that involve a lot of creative problem-solving.

"Our department is in a central analytical facility, providing high-end analytical chemistry solutions to all sorts of product development and manufacturing issues." he relates. "The sheer variety of assignments from the divisions we support tempers any possibility of boredom that may come from routine analyses, and also allows for the development and use of a wide variety of analytical procedures and instrumentation. Problem-solving with a creative group of coworkers using advanced instrumentation creates a stimulating workplace--one that folks are eager to join and sustain."

WINNING WORKPLACES also tacks on four other factors that help create a great work environment: rewards and recognition, teamwork and involvement, learning and development, and work/life balance. Employees express especially heartfelt gratitude for generous work/life policies. "After the birth of my daughter," says Sarah Heathcock, a research scientist in microbiology at S. C. Johnson, "I was able to take a six-month maternity leave and return to my position part time. My manager worked with me to adapt my job responsibilities to fit a part-time schedule in a way that benefits the department, the company as a whole, and myself as an employee. My husband also works for S. C. Johnson, so we can be flexible with both of our schedules when I have situations that I need to be available for outside my normal workhours. My husband and I feel very fortunate to work for a company in which we both have successful careers, while being able to utilize such wonderful work/life programs."

Almost all of the companies mentioned also offer excellent benefits, continuing education opportunities, matching funds for 401(k)s, lovely facilities, and plenty of nice extras like the "superior coffee" at Xandex. All of those are wonderful, says Clark at Winning Workplaces, but they aren't necessarily the elements that will keep an employee coming back day after day. "When a company sees that they need to be a better place to work, they sometimes think, 'Oh, we'll make a new program. We'll have Friday barbeques; we'll have employee of the month. We'll throw a program or service at employees, and that will make them happy.' Well, it doesn't make them happy. People may at first be attracted to a company by the benefits, but if it isn't a good environment to work in, those benefits don't matter." Great places to work provide respectful, open, stable, and stimulating work environments. "If every day you go to work, you are happy," Abbott's Yong says, "I think that is the most important thing."


One Chemist Describes A Rewarding Two-Way Relationship

Amoco chemist Seymour Meyerson shared these thoughts with C&EN:

"I retired in 1984 after nearly 40 years with Amoco Corp., now part of BP. I spent all this time working with mass spectrometry in the analytical section of the research department. I cite here one anecdote as an illustration of the kind of working relationships that occurred repeatedly in my years with the company.

"In 1973, Ron Martin was promoted into our group as analytical supervisor. After his first couple of weeks, he came to see me and stated that he thought he could handle all of his pencil-pushing responsibilities in about 20 hours per week and wanted to spend the other 20 hours in lab work. It seemed to him that I was having more fun than anyone else in the group and so he requested, 'Break me in on mass spectrometry.' During this time, he would look over incoming analytical jobs, pick one to work on, study it carefully, then spread out all the paperwork on a table and call me in to examine it with him. I offered my suggestions as to how to attack the problem, and he went to work. When he had carried it as far as he felt able--sometimes only a few hours later, more often days or weeks--he spread out all the materials again and asked me to review it with him.

"In effect, while I was reporting to Ron administratively, he was reporting to me technically, although, of course, no such two-way relationship ever showed up in our table of organization. It worked so well because neither of us felt any need to prove anything, and I know that Ron as well as I found it highly satisfying."



Related Stories
[C&EN, October 28, 2002]

[C&EN, October 15, 2001]

[C&EN, October 2, 2000

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