Org Prep Daily

February 24, 2008

Such, such were the joys

Filed under: industry life — milkshake @ 8:07 pm


When I was laid off 2003 by a giant pharma company, we were told that – because we were getting a better severance payment than the absolute minimum required by law – we must sign a gag agreement. The agreement was that we won’t say anything negative about being fired and about the company that fired us. In this gag agreement we also promised that we would not disclose the severance amount and the existence of the gag agreement.

Since our closed site was quite large, they did not fire us all at once but they divided us into “waves” . I was lucky to get out early so I still got what was promised – but the colleagues fired few weeks afer me were screwed. Someone at the headquarters figured out that they were giving away too generous severance so they cut it. Many of my colleagues ended up suing the company: their class-action dragged on for years but eventually the company coughed up the rest of the promised money to settle.

I soon found a job at a medium-sized company in South San Francisco. The place was crazy – they drove us extremely hard there because the company was in trouble and we needed to save it or we would lose our jobs. So we were working like nuts “to have a clinical candidate by the end of the year”and the biggest problem was our management: they were very nervous, they made all kinds of unrealistic promises to appease their superiors but wouldn’t spend money on equipment we needed for the candidate scale-ups. The management was setting us for failure – we were short of people but they would always come up with ridiculous new ideas what else we should do for somebody, ontop of our work. So our medicinal chemistry group ended up doing the scale up, the bulk purifications, the process optimisation, and the formulation work also – while trying to find the best candidate. After 10 months I got tired of this baloney (and our boss) and since I got a job offer I prepared to quit. There was plenty of good chemists there and I talked to some friends discreetly – to see if they would like to go with me – but not discreetly enough and our management found out. And so they decided to fire me preventively. The problem was that they did not have an official reason for firing me – and they would have to pay a severance if they fired me.

The way it happened was rather entertaining: our evil boss came and asked me if the rumor was true – that I would be leaving. I said yes but I would want to stay for another 6 weeks or so, before my new job starts. She said they needed to find a replacement for me and they couldn’t advertise my job because they did not have an open position. So as a favour, please would I write an informal note about the timing so that they could start the hiring process? I wrote the e-mail and the next morning I found myself fired on moment notice. I was called into HR office in administrative building and told I cannot go back because my “written resignation was accelerated” by the HR, and my poor boss could do nothing about it “because it was a standard industry practice”. They would box and mail my stuff.

I asked HR whose idea it was – they told me our boss wanted me out. So I explained the HR that this was a manifest scam: the real reason why they fired me was the argument between me and my group leader. I told the HR the boss was going after me for some time because I criticised her management style and the decisions she made which delayed our project and hurt our company. In these difficult circumstances I did what I could to save our company and was working 14 hours a day including the weekends and I was punished for it – while my boss was trying to fabricate any reasons to fire me in order to cover up her mistakes. Now she did it in a sleazy way and she also manipulated the HR in the process. It was a textbook wrongful dismissal.

The HR immediately called my boss and overruled the firing and I went back to work. The victory lived short: the same evening the boss called an emergency management meeting – all the senior staf, with site director, etc – and she went about the terrible danger that I would steal the company’s intellectual property and lure other employees away. I found myself fired the next Monday.

It took several letters to the company director with “wrongful dismissal” prominently in them – and suddenly I got a check in the mail – over $7000 – and it was much more than they owed me for my unused vacation; it was the money that I would make if I stayed for another 2 months.  Incidentally, two months is the minimum severance required by law to be paid to dismissed employees (in California). After the check cleared I got a phone call from the headquarters: their HR boss explained that someone has made a clerical error and they overpaid me by mistake but they did not want me to return their money. You see – they could not call it severance “because I resigned voluntarily and they accelerated it” but they decided to pay my lost income to shut me up.

Some time after I left, my colleagues in South San Francisco were told that there were going to be “some limited job cuts in the future” and they needn’t to worry as the downsizing would affect only few people in some groups but the company was required by law to give a notice of possible job cuts to everybody. What the top management did not tell the employees was that the headquarters already decided to axe the company site no matter what. The top company decision was to quit the pharma business altogether – the only problem was that their research projects were unfinished. To get the best value for their research, the management needed its employees to take the projects to some reasonable stage before they could sell it to other companies. So the harder the people in the labs worked the sooner they would find themselves out of job…

And the notice was a ploy also: the legal minimum severance counts from the moment of the written notification. The employees believed the management promises that their jobs were not in danger (despite the notice) and that they were protected by the company written policies. They were told that those few people who would lose their jobs would get much better severance than the legal minimum. In fact, they did not. One day the employees were invited for all hands meeting in the administrative building and there they were told there that they can’t go back to lab again. Suddenly guards and boxes appeared at the chemistry building and the chemists were given only few minutes to pack their office belonging. They were constantly watched as to not to sabotage anything.  Despite the assurances, they all got just the minimum, which turned out to be less than 1 month salary because the notice was already in effect. (The group bosses were employed few weeks or months longer, in the empty building, in order to wrap up the projects and put the documentation together. I suppose they got a better deal.)

So as you can see, the industry has various ways of maximising the shareholders’ value. There is probably someone at your company who will get a bonus for firing you and then screwing you out of your severance.


  1. Quite a story.

    Comment by Jordan — February 25, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

  2. I forgot to mention that as a part of requirement for the job, Celera made me to visit a dope-testing agency and pee in da cup to prove that I was not an user. Apparently they had this policy for all new hires, to shield themselves from liabilities. I never heard of another pharma company that would do this kind of stuff but I wanted the job so I complied.

    Comment by milkshake — February 25, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

  3. Occidental Research Corporation (re Occidental Petroleum) in Irvine, CA did a record degreed employee dismissal when the site was inverted into cash, 1980s. It was so bloody that the ACS actually wrote a couple of condemning paragraphs to Armand Hammer. Prior employee turnover was about 20%/year. The joke was that if you lost your wallet in Orange County a past, present, or future Oxy employee would return it.

    Ragnarok was all guards and strict lab/pilot plant exclusion. Lots of smirking uniformed meat. At the end of that beautifully choreographed day… the guards were fired.

    Amidst the smoking wreckage: When excess assets (junk) were publicly auctioned a wooden crate of tiny plastic parts went for $20. Nobody knew what is was aside from its label, Eaton CPK Atomic Models. My original RFP was for about $10,000 (boosted carbons and couplings), so paying $20 to personally own it seemed reasonable. It’s in the garage, replaced by HyperChem.

    Comment by Uncle Al — February 25, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

  4. It makes academia seem delightfully serene by comparison.
    Except for the vicious turf wars over labs the size of small kitchens and funds in the ~$10K range.

    Comment by Rhenium — February 25, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

  5. Thank you for further cementing my desire to go into academia.

    Comment by excimer — February 25, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

  6. I take it you don’t like management?…
    Please don’t put off us earnest youngsters from working for the glorious pharma companies who save so many lives.

    Comment by Wavefunction — February 25, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  7. I think industry is a worthwhile experience and it pays well and each company is different. It is nice to have couple of industry jobs on the resume (if the job changes are resonably spaced apart) but being fired realy blows.

    It was the group leaders and other higher-ups who got affected most by the firing because they had more expensive lifestyle and there were far fewer jobs available at their level. If you are 50 years old and had 180k salary and you were supervising 10 people in your previous job, no-one is likely hire you below your previous level – even if you are willing to settle for half of the figure and do research with your hands again. They can always get someone young and fresh to do that. The idea is that an unmarried guy after postdoc is more motivated and easier to control than a former group leader. And no boss likes to bring in someone who can potentially replace him.

    With my masters I got re-hired within few weeks, I think I was the first chemists at the closed site who found a new job. By changing companies couple times -involuntarily – and getting a mild raise every time, my salary is now probably 10k+ higher than if I stuck with one company.

    Comment by milkshake — February 25, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

  8. Legal minimum severance? Sounds nice. Here in New Jersey it’s strictly “at will” employment. They could boot me out the door tomorrow with no severance if they wanted.

    Comment by cowflipper — February 25, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

  9. We were in South San Francisco. The reason why our colleagues in Nerviano kept their jobs is that it is exceptionally hard to fire someone in Italy. The government there said “ahh, we dont think so” and took over the site and turned it into state-run research institute. If I understood correctly they even kept many of their research projects.

    Comment by milkshake — February 25, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  10. Man, this almost sounds like a good movie!

    Comment by mevans — February 26, 2008 @ 11:57 am

  11. Re: dope testing, I had to do this before accepting my current pharma job along with standard background checks. I also had to do it for another company that made an offer before I even decided to decline. But actually, I had to do it at a third company on the day of the interview, before my presentation. So I don’t think it’s all that unusual anymore.

    Comment by Peter — February 26, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  12. Very well written. Indeed it seems to be a motion picture plot!

    Comment by neel — February 27, 2008 @ 4:39 am

  13. Yeah, I have a question about this dope-testing thing. You see, I’m afraid of needles, which would make me a terrible heroin addict, but it would also seriously make me consider not taking an offer were a blood test involved. I only take them when necessary every five years to travel to countries that require a physician’s note. I fully expect to die in my sixties since I was afraid to go to the hospital for some horrible disease. I’m sure if a tester creeped up behind me and slashed my shoulder with a knife, then proceeded to collect a bit of blood, I wouldn’t mind it nearly as much as a needle. Mosquitoes don’t even phase me as well.

    Pissing in a cup is fine though. So, was it a blood test for most of you?

    Comment by blatnoi — February 27, 2008 @ 11:22 am

  14. Thank you for the very illustrative story Milkshake and congratulations for this great page!.

    After being recruted for my present company I had to undergoe a full medical check-up including eye check, blood extraction and analysis, urine analysis, ecography, etc
    I am talking about a pharmaceutical company in Spain.

    Comment by vasili — February 28, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  15. Enjoyed your post: I have had similiar experiences in dealing with downsizing- both company wide or more personal. Unfortunately the common themes include that HR Depts are not there for the employees but are a tool of the company and that incompotent managers know how to survive. Often say the serverence package is better than average makes me wonder if the calculation entails people who left of own accord without anything (so zero)- its like common statement that company pays competative salaries- typically outdated or nondifferentiated(BS/MS/PhD/yrs, Bio/chem/eng)data so always are low. My first drug test was 18 years ago at an interview for a big pharma (and was part of physical exam like vasilis) and have subsequently had at least two offers that required passing a test (small & mid-sized Biotechs) with a third avoided since the hiring manager previously worked with me. Seems Credit and other background checks are becoming in vogue too.

    Comment by CMC guy — February 28, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

  16. wow!! scaryyyy

    Comment by Newly employed — February 29, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

  17. as excimer I feel even closer to academia..

    Comment by Luis — March 5, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

  18. Yeah, credit and background checks are becoming the norm. Both freak me out, just a little.

    Comment by Jose — March 5, 2008 @ 6:18 pm

  19. I don’t quite understand the point of credit checks — is it a measurement of willingness to betray IP for money?

    Comment by Klug — March 5, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

  20. Klug- me neither. The thinking is apparently to determine how trustworthy? you are?

    Comment by Jose — March 6, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  21. so, whats the deal about smokers. Do they get or not any jobs?
    i am scared after reading this post.

    Comment by star — March 7, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

  22. From my limited experience, the background check/pee-in-da-cup baloney correlates with the dilbetness of the company and its treatment of employees. In the last 5 years the job situation was quite tough so the lawyerly types were able to push through all kinds of nonsense, to screen the prospective employees (but in fact to shield the company from employee misconduct liabilities, by showing due dilligence).

    You potential colleagues in medchem group and above all the group boss should be making the decision about hiring you. The boss will have to live with you and his career will depend on your productivity. So if there is an open position but some HR lady with a psychology degree and penchant for “being helpful” is telling the boss whom he must/musn’t hire into his lab – based on intrusive and cover-my-ass stuff like credit or arrest record check – something is seriously wrong with the place and you do well to stay out.

    I have decided that if I ever changed the job and someone asked me to pee in the cup again or authorize a credit check on me, I would smile and tell them to go ahead with it – and I would jack up my asking salary figure by 10k. Remember, a job interview goes both ways. A company that treats you like a rude parole officer even before hiring you is a too-high risk employer.

    Comment by milkshake — March 7, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

  23. I sincerely recommend that you take whatever opportunity offers itself in the future to look into the ‘actual’ legal requirements of downsizing, retrenchment and dismissals. These are fairly simple areas of law which unfortunately are completely different in different jurisdictions. Having said that, if you can take in the basics you are in a much better position when it comes time to discuss your options (and the companies) – knowledge is power, it also makes it possible to document the relevant incidents, etc. as they occur, so the evidence of these is available to you when such an event occurs. Also, merely knowing what they must prove and to what standard of proof is invaluable when such a discussion occurs – ie. admit nothing and probe to find out what they know, then hit them hard and repeatedly with the legal problems they are likely to face if they continue along their current course.

    Opportunities to learn this stuff are normally limited, I’d suggest you take an opportunity to discuss such matters with community-based legal advice clinics (if available), or if you are an academic, seek the answers through the professor’s at the law school(s). In my experience, once people know what to look for, they can generally find a way to access the information.

    Good Luck

    Comment by fumbles — March 12, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

  24. When I first entered the workforce back in ’94, every company required a drug test. It was very much en vogue those days. Three stories to tell in that respect:

    a) most companies would give you an offer with the proviso that it was contingent upon passing a drug test. One company I interviewed with though had you pee in a cup during the interview!

    b) at another company I interviewed with when I sat down with the HR rep, she said that I needed to sign this card. I asked what it was and she said that I was agreeing to comply with the company drug policy should I be hired. I asked “OK. What is the company drug policy?” She answered “Oh, it’s long and complicated and we don’t have time to fully explain it now.” Now I’m thinking, “Something ‘long and complicated’ sounds like something I should stinking read and understand before agreeing to comply with.” I didn’t say it, of course, because I wanted the job. I signed away and never did find out what the official policy was.

    c) Around ’93 C&E News had a cover story on drug testing policies and one of the concerns raised was around false positives that would prevent someone from getting a job. One of the HR people interviewed “deflected” that criticism by saying that it wasn’t the only factor. He cited an example of someone who tested positive for heroin, but they hired him anyway, because it was clear he wasn’t a heroin addict. You can imagine the storm of letters that response brought in.

    Comment by MTK — March 27, 2008 @ 8:25 am

  25. That was one heck of a post Milshake!
    I half way into my post-doc and on my way to finding a first job. This discussion is gold. Thank you.

    Comment by DDQ — April 2, 2008 @ 3:31 am

  26. I had to pee in a cup as part of the hiring process in my current big pharma job.

    Very nicely written story.

    Comment by MolecModeler — April 2, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  27. Like the article and the site. I think the trick is to work for a privately held company. Maybe one owned by a very rich (European) family. ;) The other option is to work for the government as long as you don’t mind keeping your head below the political radar and hoping some crazy, lef-wing rebels don’t come and blow up the battlestation on which you were working.

    Comment by Merkwurdigliebe — April 14, 2008 @ 9:46 am

  28. I would not work for government (except as a contractor hired by an independent company) because the government pay scale sucks and there is often just as much nonsense as in industry. A friend worked at a government-run Cancer Research Institute in Ft. Detrick and he had some stories to tell.

    If anyone has a good take on the situation at Boehringer I would love to hear it, it would make sense that a management in a privately-owned and secure company may take longer-term view that management who is enslaved to quarterly reports and their own pile of stock options.

    Comment by milkshake — April 14, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

  29. I just finished an interview with a big pharma company in the Midwest of the US. I was asked to
    take a drug test during the interview i.e. peeing in a cup. The woman at Occupational Health told me to not flush. I couldn’t figure out why until I saw blue dye in the toilet. Given that it didn’t change color following urination I figure I passed the preliminary test but I thought it strange to test me before offering me a job. I didn’t get the job by the way. They felt I was a better fit in another group even through I had been doing what they were looking to hire me for for 3 years.

    Comment by Steve — April 25, 2008 @ 10:28 am

  30. Thanks a lot for this informative awarness campaign before join pharma…
    Hope, more interesting stories.

    Comment by gurung — June 9, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  31. You were very lucky to receive any extra money, there’s no law in California that enforces companies to give severances. However, there is a a law that enforces companies to give 60 day notices to severed employees if more than 50 people get laid off. Since

    Comment by Todd — June 18, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  32. What is the name of your institute? Somehow I could not find it in your blog. I am currently looking for a postdoc and your place sounds very interesting.

    Comment by Slava — August 24, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

  33. Slava: Org Prep Daily is my chemistry page – it is not a blog about my workplace. The reason why I did not try to keep my identity secret (and why my employer got mentioned here few times also) was that I thought it was not a big deal – until few days ago.

    Someone at the (big pharma company) headquarters suddenly became anxious to find out who I was and where I was employed and left the following comment:
    hey, i work in the pharma industry n I’ve been reading some of your posts..quite interesting. So what’s ur real identity? name/profession/country? And why did you choose milkshake as a name?
    And on the same day, someone was repeatedly googling Milkshake (Org Prep Daily) + SUGEN, a dead giveaway… It was obvious that this curious person was not a chemist, nor a reader of blogs, and that he/she never cared to read the posts and comments on this site before.
    One of many nice features of WordPress is that the comment IP addresses show up. Search engine queries directing traffic here appear on the admin dashboard, etc.

    So I suppose that it was this particular post, Such, such were the joys, that got attention of someone in New York. As you can understand, I have to shield my employer from portentous letters written by giant litigious boogers – and so I removed the most direct references to my job. I don’t need the trouble. (But I am willing to publicize any censorship attempt, to push back if necessary).

    I apologize – maybe I am somewhat paranoid at the moment and maybe you really are a student, but I cannot give you the information. Best luck with your postdoc search; and please don’t work for companies that earned for themselves a fishy reputation within the chemistry community.

    Comment by milkshake — August 25, 2008 @ 1:52 am

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