For nearly a quarter-century, the National Sales Network (NSN) conference and career fair has offered Black job seekers a venue to connect with corporations looking to fill commercial roles. 

The annual event, which typically attracts around 1,700 attendees, caters to a who’s-who of biopharma companies looking to fill open roles in sales and sales management. Amid the industry’s push to increase the number of diverse employees, last fall’s gathering took on added significance.

“Lots of folks get offered jobs on the spot, and rightfully so,” said one biopharma commercial executive.

But some of the job offers last fall left the exec scratching his head.

“We all were sent to D.C. to recruit African Americans, specifically, and were pressured when we couldn’t make hiring decisions on the spot,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “We ideally want someone with treatment-area experience, but exceptions were made off of ethnicity.”

Hiring managers, he reported, downplayed the usual job qualifications and instead strove to meet end-of-year diversity recruiting goals. The exec said he knew of several colleagues who felt pressure from their companies and, as a result, chose to hire individuals who either weren’t quite ready for or weren’t a fit in the available roles. 

“When we debriefed, if the candidate was close, some managers said, ‘Hey, make the offer. We’ll float them for a couple months until something comes open,’” the source said. 

Such practices represent a potential pitfall for companies, which seek to ensure that the benefits of diversity remain in the forefront, as opposed to numbers alone.

As the anonymous source, who is Black, explained: “I know that if I hire a Black person for a role that they’re not ready for, it would make the company a little bit more skeptical about [hiring a person of color] in the future. It’ll either prove a theory or concept that’s preconceived, which does us no good – that African Americans are less fit for the job – or it’ll put the employee in a bad light and make them uninterested in moving forward.”

As biopharma companies and their ad agencies put greater emphasis on increasing workforce diversity (and on marketing to a multicultural nation), their efforts are often accompanied by parity goals. Yet as the NSN episode underscores, there’s also a tension between meeting goals and finding qualified diverse candidates.

“You don’t just hire people because they’re diverse. You hire because they’re qualified,” stressed Rachel Cupples, a corporate diversity recruiter. 

When a company makes an earnest DE&I effort but doesn’t approach it the right way, ultimately the people who were hired – if they’re not qualified – won’t be happy in their roles, Cupples warned. 

Winselow Tucker, SVP of U.S. hematology for Bristol Myers Squibb, agreed. When recruiting among diverse communities, he noted, companies “have to have real roles that they’re reaching out to them for. Don’t have slates of diverse candidates who are not qualified. That actually hurts the organization’s ability to attract diverse candidates, because they realize that they’re not really being considered for the role.”

Black and Hispanic employees make up about 13% and 18% of the pharma workforce, respectively, according to data from PhRMA cited by S&P Global. The latest census figures put the Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino communities at 14.2% and 16.3%, respectively, of the U.S. population. 

But the gap is wide in biotech, where Black and Latino professionals make up only 7% and 3%, respectively, of the total workforce, per trade group BIO and Coqual. In the executive echelons, the percentage of minorities thins out even further.

“Especially as you start to move up into the leadership ranks and get into the C-suite of biopharma companies, you don’t see a lot of people of color or diversity in those hallways,” said Darren Casonhua, lead, U.S. oncology pipeline development and commercialization for Sanofi Genzyme. “Really savvy executive teams, and in particular some CEOs, are saying, ‘Look, if we’re going to be competitive going forward, we have got to create not just a workforce but a leadership team that reflects the customer base that we serve.’”

For many organizations, that effort starts with establishing relationships with early-career workers. Take BMS, where Black (3%) and Hispanic (3.7%) individuals comprise a tiny minority of the executive team. According to a published report, BMS aspires to double executive representation of Black/African Americans and Hispanic/Latinos by year’s end, to 6% and 7.4%, respectively. 

To get there, “We want to start exposing people of color to biopharma and start developing programs that will help them understand what kinds of opportunities are there,” Tucker said.

Last year the company launched an alliance with HBCUs to increase access to and awareness of the biopharma industry among their student bodies. “That starts to build a pipeline for sustainable representation,” he added.

Having a transparent, company-wide commitment helps to ensure the proper measures are in place.

“What really resonates with me is ensuring that you’re communicating why diversity matters and that it’s not just to reach a number,” said Tucker. “Don’t get me wrong, it is the right thing to do. But you also have to connect it to your business imperative, and that brings your organization along.” 

Fellow drugmaker Otsuka does not yet have specific external goals vis-a-vis the makeup of its workforce. Instead, the company put in place a 2022 deadline for accomplishing a series of short-term internal actions, including revising elements of its recruitment plan. One of these involves working to improve DE&I in middle-management positions. Why? Because many of the company’s DE&I-related objectives and initiatives will be executed by middle managers.

“We recognize that the middle-management workforce must be as diverse and representative of the real-world population, to be able to make an impact,” said Angela Colon-Mahoney, VP of people and business services at Otsuka America.

Colon-Mahoney noted that the company offers DE&I training as well as personal and professional support to these managers. “Training alone will not get us there, so we are also focusing on mentorship, coaching and other talent-management best practices to enable our managers to serve as more inclusive leaders.”

But even that may not be enough, because it’s the front-line managers who are really the gatekeepers of recruiting, Casonhua pointed out. And in many cases, those managers are white.

“So you have people charged with trying to help the company achieve their ambitions of more diversity, and yet people are not really equipped to make those sorts of pivots in a way that really is comfortable for them and in a way that best serves the company,” he said.

Hiring strategies may differ depending on the position. Senior management or executive manager roles, for instance, are very select hires. As such, they may draw from a narrower pool of candidates than the ones for entry-level sales associates.

Still, managers’ attitudes toward DE&I can vary greatly. “In order to achieve these ambitions, you have to invest in educating and sensitizing front-line managers, because they’re charged with bringing people into the organization en masse,” said Casonhua. That includes unconscious-bias training to enhance self-awareness of bias.

Nor may everyone have a thorough understanding of what DE&I actually means. “Most don’t know,” he continued. “They hear those buzzwords but don’t know what they mean and why they’re important to a company.”

So if firms want a more inclusive environment where everyone is treated equitably, they should also invest in helping people understand why DE&I is important to the company strategically.

If a company doesn’t do this uniformly, it not only hamstrings its plans but also confuses the employees charged with helping the company achieve them. That confusion may create the perception, at least among hiring managers, that they just need a diverse slate of candidates.

“It doesn’t mean I necessarily need to hire, but I have to have a diverse slate of candidates,’” Casonhua explained.

Then there’s having the right hiring policies and procedures in place. That puts the onus on employers to examine job descriptions, look at potential candidates, match them to qualifications and develop a slate of candidates.

“We do that whether it’s a diverse candidate or not, because we want to make sure that the people included in the slate are actually qualified and that we’re getting the best talent out there,” Tucker said. “That process stops us from having a candidate come through, whether they’re diverse or not, who will not meet the qualifications.”

To ensure a diverse pipeline, BMS is reaching out to candidates – whether it has an open role or not – and networking with diverse executives across the industry.

As they bring people into their organizations, companies must also make sure there’s an inclusive environment where diverse employees can thrive.

The NSN event, Casonhua said, underscores the point about hiring on potential. “White people get these opportunities all day every day, without the exact experience that the job may require. In fact, they get hired more often than not on potential than on having the actual experience the job description calls for.”

When presented with two candidates, one a person of color and one not, each with roughly equal qualifications, a manager should pick the candidate who has the potential to succeed in the job, he advised. For instance, one might be a better fit for the kind of culture the company aspires to, or for the geography the person would be assigned to.

“That’s not meeting a quota. That’s hiring the best candidate for the job,” he said.

Evidence suggests the country is still in the midst of The Great Reshuffle. The rate of new hires is outpacing the quit rate in every major industry, jobs data show. That’s a signal that when workers resign, it’s for new opportunities likely in the same sector and not to leave the labor force. 

“People are leaving their jobs for a better work/life balance, more opportunities to work remotely when they cannot, and for more inclusive and diverse workforces where they can feel a belonging,” said Cupples.

Against this backdrop, biopharma took a step back during the pandemic. From early 2019 to late 2020, 67% of biotechs saw little or no change in representation by race/ethnicity at the executive level, and one in five moved backward, BIO said.

That should not cause companies to hit the panic button but rather to adopt the right mindset. Rather than “let’s get diverse candidates,” the approach should start with, “How do we get qualified candidates?”

“Diverse populations today realize that there is a lot of focus on getting diverse candidates and, as such, they want to be courted just as every other candidate,” Tucker said. “They want to be evaluated like every other candidate – because when hired, they want to be treated as, ‘I am a talent that you’ve selected because of my experiences, my skills sets, my traits and my value to the organization.’

“Anything that tries to short-circuit that does a disservice for the organization and the candidate and does not set either up for success in the long term.”