Actelion Pharmaceuticals

A Bay area biopharmaceutical firm that values and rewards its people

Imagine taking martial arts to embrace your company’s core values. Repelling off mountain cliffs to learn resiliency and change management. Gaining skills in flawless execution from Air Force fighter pilots and then putting teamwork to the test when you build houses for Habitat for Humanity. Add to those experiences frequent rewards and expressions of appreciation—and you are an employee at Actelion Pharmaceuticals U.S.

At this $1.8 billion biopharmaceutical firm, the focus on people is such a strong philosophy, the organization touts Human Resources as one of their four foundational pillars. According to Shal Jacobovitz, President, Actelion U.S., it’s also their strategic advantage in a highly competitive sector.

“As a company we want to add as much value to our employees as they add to us as an organization,” says Jacobovitz. “Putting people first, having a focus on HR, making it one of our core competencies is a very important philosophy for us. We are one of the, if not the lowest turnover companies in the business. And I attribute that to our philosophy of putting resources into the people that we have, adding value to what they have here, making sure we do a lot of little things that matter to keep them on board. And obviously our rewards programs, our recognition programs, are critical to our success.”

Actelion’s goal: Build a common mythology through experiential learning. Then continually reinforce its values, engage and motivate its employees with symbolic opportunities for appreciation. And, in the process, create a really cool place to work. “We prefer experiential learning,” explains Rob Etherington, Senior Vice President, Commercial. “We like to make things visceral so they can connect the memory to the real substance. Doing it and involving all of our senses so that this becomes more than a part and parcel of who we are is how it’s interfaced into and embedded into the culture. Appreciation and gratitude, and how we express that, has become really key for us.”

“When you reward the behaviors you want, the behavior perpetuates,” says Jacobovitz. “When you see innovation, when you see people doing a great job communicating, when you see people doing a great job at making sure we are results driven, and reward that, then the behavior spreads, like a domino effect, across the organization. This helps our growth, helps solidify our culture, and helps us be a leader in our sector.” It also helps attract and retain top talent. For two years, Business Times and Business Journal have both named Actelion one of the “best places to work” in the San Francisco Bay Area. With a 91 percent employee engagement rate, their focus on people works.

“We’ve been a company that has really strived not just to be a great place to work, but also a place that people really feel engaged, feel like they are doing good work and contributing to something meaningful. They know how they fit into the big picture of what the organization is trying to accomplish, and in every component of that contribution, recognition has become essential,” says Stacy Markel, Vice President, Human Resources. Launched in 1998, for this U.S. division of a global biopharmaceutical organization navigating through the high-risk, high-reward nature of drug development means dealing with both successes and failures. What happens when you have a team work on a project for seven years, only to have it go negative during testing? How do you promote innovation but at the same time train for resiliency when things don’t work out? For answers to those difficult questions, Actelion’s leadership turns back to assuring HR is a core competency in every area of the business.

“If you are going to hire highly-energized, highly-innovative people, you’re going to have to come up with interesting ways to keep them motivated within the organization,” explains Jacobovitz. “Part of that is stopping for a moment and saying, ‘Hey, you did a great job.’ It’s also making sure people feel that we value them and that we add something to their personal and professional development.”

As Earl Gratuito, Facilities Coordinator points out, “I matter to the company,’ that’s kind of the culture here. We have been able to maintain that culture and vibe throughout the company even with the challenge of adding so many new people.” This, as Etherington clarifies, is exactly where Actelion’s recognition and training partner O.C. Tanner comes into play. “O.C. Tanner is a unique organization that helps us carry forward this connection of what the culture of Actelion is and translate it into the everyday workday world.”

Starting on an employee’s first day, Actelion uses innovative onboarding to make new employees feel welcome, and introduce them into Actelion life. Creative holiday gifts are given each year through generous gift passes to be used at And peers and managers can reward colleagues for great work or say, “thanks for helping me out,” by using the company’s online recognition system.

To make the appreciation moments magical for bigger rewards, twice a year Actelion hosts gala celebrations. Here, employees reaching their five and ten-year milestones are honored with standing ovations. Quantitative sales performance awards are presented, as well as cross-company performance awards, for embodying Actelion’s core values.

“Working with a management team that is so committed to people and all these recognition programs, value programs, and leadership programs really show our employees how they are valued. It’s a two-way street: the company gives to the employees, the employees give to the company—creating a positive, self-perpetuating situation where everyone benefits,” says Markel.

Employees agree. “Whenever you get those types of awards, you always feel better about yourself,” says Dennis Leventis, IT Systems Administrator. “You feel recognized. You feel motivated to continue the good work that you’ve been doing.” “When you dig down to HR as a core competency, you have to have a very strong reward system that rewards your core values,” Jacobovitz concludes. “And, a very strong reward system that recognizes and values people in your organization means you also minimize turnover, you improve innovation, and you make people feel like they’re part of the community.”

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