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Tales from the Dark Side: Ignoring the Warning Signs

Occasionally, I’m asked about how my own experiences working in the biotech private sector inform my clinical work. One lesson I’ve learned is that it can be too easy to ignore warning signs. Spoiler alert: this story does not have a happy ending, though I learned a lot from it.


At the time, I had been feeling frustrated working for a large US pharma company. The department was overstaffed. The product was boring. The compensation was low. There were tensions on the team. The workplace was split between Manhattan or a city 2.5 hours’ drive away. I didn’t see a lot of opportunities for growth and started looking for something better.


I found an opening for a more advanced role at a large Swiss company. The role was in the same therapeutic area, one I liked working in a lot. The compensation was greater. The office was close by, too.


These are the warning signs I ignored.


The first sign was that I had worked at this same company once before. I had left it because the culture was negative. I assumed that I was wiser, more seasoned, more resilient, and would be able to function having my eyes wide open. I thought that my fresh perspective would be appreciated. In fact, the culture had become more calcified and more negative. My resilience and wisdom were no match for it.


The second sign was that I had an insider friend who shied me away from the role. She said that there was tension between the marketing leader and the medical team. She didn’t say not to apply, but she did share that there had been a change in medical managers and that she was not sure if the new manager was going to be successful. I figured that I’d be able to navigate this effectively, too. I had the "inside story" and would be able to identify and fix issues before they would become problems.


The third sign occurred during the interview with the hiring manager. The interview went well, but he asked some unusual questions including, “If you were let go from the company after one year, how would you react?” There was also ambiguity about the management structure. There were three mid-career medical directors already in place. It was not clear whether this new role would have the three other medical directors on the team report into this new position or not. I ignored that lack of clarity.


The fourth warning sign came from outside medical experts who I knew personally and who knew the pharma companies well. What I heard I took as a positive sign: “They really need a person like you.” I realize now that this communication was an indication of the challenges ahead, that there was a dearth of people like me.


The final warning sign came from interviewing the three medical directors. I did not get a consistent positive feeling from any of them. No one was rude or inappropriate, but there was a lack of enthusiasm, too. I minimized this as a factor, thinking that I'd win them over.


You’d think that these warning signs would be enough to steer a person away from a job. Yet, I convinced myself that I’d be able to be successful. I see this mistake as being due to a combination of unjustifiable optimism and hubris. I also was unwilling to wait for something better to come up.


Four weeks later I was offered the job and four weeks after that I started working there. Here’s what went wrong:


1.        The hiring manager quit three months after I started. He had served as a buffer and protector. The person who replaced him was a pathological liar who was comfortable with gaslighting me. I later learned that this manager’s role had been vacated by a total of three managers in a short span of time. Yikes!

2.        The three medical directors resented reporting into this new role, instead of to my hiring manager. This management change occurred after I had started and was very awkward. Their lack of support made it impossible to lead.

3.        Like the other medical managers who had left, I also experienced significant tension with the marketing lead, which I was not able to fix. This was further aggravated by observing multiple ethics and compliance violations, which I was obliged to report.

4.        I was blamed by medical leadership and marketing leadership for being non-collaborative (by reporting compliance concerns) and demoted to the same level as the medical directors.


Was it all bad? No, it never is. I did have some fun, including some European travel. However, it took 1.5 years to find a better position and leave.

PS. I’m better at noticing warning signs and better at seeing this happening to others.

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