· 4 min read · Features

Interview with Amanda White, HR director at Abbott


Rapid growth by acquisition left healthcare and pharmaceuticals company Abbott with a mixed bag of staff perks and conditions. But the harmonisation process was a challenge HRD Amanda White thrived on.

Think drugs and pharmaceuticals manufacturers, and images inevitably come to mind of animal-testing protesters, campaigners with placards urging NICE to allow expensive cancer drugs to become available on the NHS, and of tight security with barbed-wire perimeter fences protecting labs that are home to armies of men in white coats. But the head office of Maidenhead-based Abbott couldn't be further from this picture. For a start, HR director Amanda White is keen to carry out the first part of this interview in the 'tree house' adjacent to her office, where coloured words and pictures of ideas for company innovations are festooned on trees painted on the walls, and beanbags are scattered all over the floor.

Abbott, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, not the UK Stock Exchange, is in the S&P 500 (the equivalent of the UK's FTSE 100). While the company is keen to market itself as a healthcare company rather than a pharmaceuticals manufacturer, its largest division is pharmaceuticals and the company has also dipped its toes into animal health, diabetes care, medical optics, molecular science, nutrition, laboratory information management, sports science and vascular diseases. In common with practically every other pharmaceuticals company, mergers and acquisitions have played a major part in its development. In February this year it acquired Solvay Pharmaceuticals. This was swiftly followed on 22 March by the acquisition of Starlims Technologies, taking Abbott's UK workforce numbers to 2,300.

But as a result of this acquisitions process, there was one major problem Abbott recently faced: most of its nine sites in England had their own idiosyncrasies while employee terms and conditions - particularly staff perks - varied considerably.

But where many would have thrown up their hands in despair, this was a challenge White has thrived on. "The reason I have stayed here for 15 years is that the business is continually changing and growing," she explains. "More people makes my job more interesting."

Her harmonisation process has been the feature of 2010 - a project to bring all employees under the same HR function, coinciding with a new employee benefits strategy for the entire workforce.

"Focus groups told us staff had low expectations of the value of their employee benefits package," she explains. "Over the years, we had built up a number of core benefits, including a defined-benefit pension scheme, company cars (if appropriate), subsidised gym membership, subsidised canteen, free parking, an employee assistance programme and share ownership plans," she says. "But staff wanted something easy to access - while we wanted to tailor our perks to employees' lifestyles and the point they had reached in their careers."

Thrown into this mix was the fact each part of the business had a separate set of benefits policies. "We already had one pension system but aspects like long-service awards and maternity benefits differed across the business." To the outside world Abbott carries the strapline 'a promise for life', so for White it was imperative the same message was conveyed to staff through their rewards.

Her answer was not, she says, "to cherry-pick the best perks" but find ones that made them "relevant to the business". So Abbott launched its flexible benefits platform in June 2009, with its former core benefits plus a holiday-trading mechanism and dental insurance. White explains: "Staff were concerned we would take benefits away from them so we wanted to make it clear we were just giving them more choice."

The scheme allows employees to select benefits that meet their lifestyle needs, choosing the level of healthcare and pensions they think appropriate for them and their families. They can update their choices in June every year or after lifestyle changes such as marriage or the birth of a baby. In addition to flexible benefit choices, all staff receive life insurance worth three times their salary and individual private medical insurance.

This year, due to demand from staff, Abbott is adding a tax and salary modeller, a will-writing service and a cycle-to-work scheme, and any changes or updates to the benefits provision is accompanied by communication online, or in paper format for those that do not have access to computers at work. In addition to increasing employee benefits, the company launched a new area on its intranet portal, AbbottLife, so staff can see all their benefits options in one place.

"If staff decide to move on from Abbott, I want them to be able to make an informed choice," says White. "I make sure we communicate what's good about staying with Abbott. If they do go to another employer, I would rather they knew the total value of their remuneration."

But as well as formal remuneration and benefits arrangements, Abbott takes a holistic approach to rewarding staff. Being a healthcare provider, employee wellbeing sits very close to Abbott's values. Staff receive blood tests for diabetes, ongoing physical health assessment checks and the company regularly holds health workshops. White believes hearing colleagues talk about health and wellbeing issues has had a knock-on effect throughout the company - even on those who have not attended events - and this alone has raised awareness of preventive measures.

At present 10% of staff have a formal flexible working arrangement, and a larger number have informal arrangements with their line manager's consent. White adds: "We have a development programme for staff called 'targeting success'. This year I have been working with one employee, who has put together a presentation calling for a more fluid approach to flexible working. That person has taken the idea to senior management and it could have a real influence on the way we move forward."

The launch of a web-based occupational health scheme in 2008 has been accompanied by a 6% improvement in employee attendance. Meanwhile staff turnover is steady at 7%, which, according to White, is one of the lowest in the UK healthcare industry.

In May, Abbott was named one of the UK's Top 50 Best Workplaces by the Great Places to Work Institute, adding to the Company of the Year accolade, which it was awarded by Pharmaceutical Times in 2009. As a result, the UK HR team received the senior vice-president's award from the senior VP for global human resources, Stephen Fussell, for the multiplicity of their projects, including the restructuring of the HR department and launching flexible benefits in alignment with business goals.

Meanwhile, the company is working its way through an ongoing strategic plan for HR and for White there is still more to do. "We have had a successful year, but we need to focus on cultural change in the pharmaceuticals division (after acquiring Solvay)," she explains. "We need a clear structure and culture in the business and we are upskilling in a changing world, which is a big challenge for the rest of the year.

"We have to attract the best possible talent to Abbott," she continues. "Where we enter awards we do well, but we are what I call a 'well-kept secret', so we have to focus on building an employer brand image."

But, she adds: "We never stopped recruiting throughout the recession and now we are concentrating on promoting Abbott in a general sense. I would hope everyone who goes through our recruitment process would like to work for Abbott whether we invite them to, or not."

2005: HR director, Abbott UK
1997: HR director, Abbott head office
1995: HR manager, Abbott
1990: HR officer, Glaxo
1984: Graduate trainee at John Lewis, then various management positions