Employee mobility is high in the pharmaceutical industry, and Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) frequently move between companies to advance their career prospects. The core competencies of the MSL role (namely, to be a therapeutic area (TA) expert and to develop peer-to-peer relationships with the Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) in that TA) are highly specialized, so attractive employment opportunities for MSLs may arise with companies that are competitors, often direct competitors, of their present employer.
When managed ethically and strategically, switching to a direct competitor is a good way for the MSL to capitalize on and further increase their expertise, fast-track their career and increase their earning capacity compared to remaining with their current employer1. In fact, past a certain point, direct competitors may be the only employers who can make full use of the MSL’s expertise and KOL network. Nonetheless, such a move is not without complication, and in this article, we will explore the key issues that an MSL will need to consider in their transition strategy, based on both personal experience and discussions with other MSLs. For convenience, the subject will be approached in three parts, reflecting the three stakeholders most directly impacted by the MSL’s move: 1) the MSL’s customers (KOLs and other clinicians); 2) the MSL’s current employer; and 3) the MSL’s new employer.
Doctors regard information from a good MSL highly, and this trust is earned only by demonstrating continuous professional integrity over many years. KOL acceptance is the most important factor in the success of an MSL’s move to a competitor, and hence a switch should be considered only by MSLs who are confident of their good standing with their KOLs. The customer satisfaction surveys companies use to get feedback about their MSLs cannot really be relied upon as a gauge of good standing because (like any survey) they are skewed by all kind of sampling and response biases, not to mention the fact that doctors are generally polite individuals who will simply provide indifferent feedback if they aren’t impressed by you but don’t actively dislike you.
Instead, to help gauge their standing among their KOLs, the MSL should think about what they have previously said to the KOLs about both their current and future employer: products, operations, representatives, and business strategy. Has this been fair, balanced, and accurate at all times? Will the MSL be able to defend what they said previously with integrity, or will it seem an abrupt about-face? If the answer to these questions is a definite yes, then the transition is usually straightforward when it comes to the KOLs, who realize that, just as in their world, the best opportunities often arise within one’s area of expertise.
On a practical level, as much notice should be given to the KOLs as possible, to avoid a Phoenix-like phenomenon whereby a company representative seems to disappear and then be reborn a few months later wearing another company’s uniform. Under normal circumstances, the matter would be discussed personally with the KOL and include handover plans and dates, an introduction to the replacement MSL, and information about the new company and the starting date. This is the gold standard KOL handover but the situation we are imagining is, unsurprisingly, more complicated. The MSL will likely have been placed on Gardening Leave (see below) by their current employer immediately upon their resignation, during which they are not allowed to contact customers, and there may also be non-compete/non-solicitation clauses to consider (see also below) that extend to several months post-termination. In reality, of course, the MSL will be aware of their intention to switch well before they are placed on Gardening Leave.
Considerations regarding the current employer
The MSL’s exit from their current company needs to be very well thought out. At the time of resignation, the company’s loss is an equal gain to their direct competitor. Much of a good MSL’s value is intangible and becomes apparent only when abruptly removed. Further, in this situation, any company will have reasonable concerns about protecting their sensitive information. With all this in mind, we can presume that there will be a shift in workplace conditions for the MSL during the transition period. While this list is not exhaustive, here are some of the more important and challenging issues that the MSL will need to consider in preparing their exit strategy:
Companies often protect their interests by placing MSLs and other employees with access to sensitive information on Gardening Leave when they hand in their notice of resignation, and this is almost certain to occur when the MSL is resigning in order to work for a direct competitor. This is standard and does not (usually) imply that the employee is thought to have done something wrong. The MSL’s work during Gardening Leave is often limited to preparing a handover plan and tying up loose ends. Being placed on Gardening Leave happens abruptly and has implications for MSL/KOL relationships; if not managed correctly, it can result in the Phoenix phenomenon described above. The MSL should also keep in mind that Gardening Leave may limit or even forbid contact with their internal colleagues (see below), and that their access to company systems will likely be cut off.
Non-competition and customer non-solicitation agreements
When an MSL resigns to switch to a direct competitor, their current employer will almost certainly remind them of any obligations under the non-competition and customer non-solicitation clauses in their employment contract. Whether these clauses are legally enforceable is not always clear; if there is doubt or a feeling that the company is being less than reasonable, independent legal advice should be sought. Assuming that the clauses are enforceable, the MSL needs to account for this additional time between jobs when considering not only their KOL transition strategy but also their proposed starting date with the new company and their own personal financial situation. It may be tempting to avoid this situation by not disclosing the identity of the new company, but this is merely kicking the can down the road; the present employer will find out reasonably quickly once the MSL starts work with the new company, and at that point, the ramifications will undoubtedly be much more serious than had the MSL been transparent upfront. For this reason, and out of professional etiquette, it is better to be upfront about the identity of the new company and deal with the matter then and there.
Much has already been written about the relative merits of exit interviews. While it is a personal decision, I believe that exit interviews should be avoided even under normal circumstances. At this point, providing feedback is at best of no benefit to the leaving employee, yet it creates a permanent record of final remarks, perhaps including less than positive ones, which has implications should the MSL desire to re-join the company in the future. In the specific case of the MSL leaving for a direct competitor, the potential downsides of an exit interview are infinitely multiplied, while there is no increase at all in potential benefit.
Informing manager and colleagues
Given the issues associated with the MSL’s resignation and switch to a competitor, the best the MSL can really expect from their manager is a professional response followed by damage control mode, and in return, the MSL should likewise behave with courtesy and professionalism since they are still, after all, an employee of the company. The MSL should give their manager the required minimum notice (although perhaps no more than the minimum), respect any enforceable non-compete and non-solicitation agreements, and prepare a thorough handover. For reasons discussed earlier, it is better for the MSL to be upfront about going to a competitor, but detail should be limited to the name of the company and the role they will be taking.
When it comes to colleagues, similar rules apply. Etiquette requires that the MSL wait for management to announce their departure before discussing it with all but their closest colleagues, but the MSL should bear in mind that they may be prohibited from speaking to their colleagues during the Gardening Leave period and plan accordingly. The MSL should of course assist colleagues who will be affected by the situation but should not expect their colleagues to be as open and accessible during this time.
Considerations regarding the new employer
Managing expectations is important when starting in any role but is possibly the most important immediate consideration when an MSL comes to a company from a direct competitor. Expectations will come in many forms and from many people, including the company itself, the MSL’s manager, and the MSL’s new cross-functional colleagues.
The new company’s expectations will be high, shaped by discussions in which the MSL has highlighted their existing TA knowledge, KOL relationships, and career achievements. Therefore, the MSL needs to walk the walk. Assuming they can, they will enjoy the benefits, such as a more comfortable and less stressful onboarding period, being held in high esteem by their new colleagues due to their additional knowledge and experience, and being able to hit the ground running for their new employer and get results immediately.
The MSL may find that their arrival has been eagerly anticipated by their new cross-functional colleagues, particularly if the MSL position has been vacant for some time. This is normal and underscores the importance of the MSL role in a cross-functional environment. It also highlights another challenge that the new MSL must always be prepared for: understanding the needs of their cross-functional colleagues, working out if and how they align with the MSL’s medical priorities and managing expectations appropriately. While expectations from the cross-functional team will be higher when the MSL is coming from a direct competitor, the MSL’s additional experience and insights should mean that all reasonable expectations can be met.
A very important aspect of onboarding for the MSL is their handling of the sensitive information of their former employer, as this has implications for the MSL that is ethical, legal, and reputational. Clearly, the MSL will possess an abundance of information that their new employer will find extremely useful, and they will need to work out which bits should be treated as confidential, and which should not. Sometimes this is obvious (for example, unpublished data on a pipeline product, details of strategy or sales figures), but often it is not. Nonetheless, it is important for the MSL to respect the secrecy of their former employer’s sensitive information even when it may be in their immediate self-interest to disclose it, as notwithstanding any legal and ethical implications, it sends a clear message to the new company about how the MSL will treat their sensitive information, both now and if they leave the company in future.
Switching to a direct competitor can be challenging and is not for everyone, but done well, it can benefit not only the MSL but also the KOLs and other clinicians and thereby the patient, while at the same time leaving the door open to future opportunities at the company the MSL is leaving. A carefully mapped out transition strategy, taking into account the points raised in this article, will help to ensure that the switch goes as smoothly as possible and that the MSL’s professional reputation, so critical to their employability in the growing yet still niche area of Medical Affairs, is only enhanced by the switch.
Tim Nielsen, PhD
Tim Nielsen is a medical affairs professional based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a former research scientist who entered the pharmaceuticals industry in 2016. He is presently employed by Celltrion Healthcare and has previously worked for MSD and Janssen. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer or former employers.
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