5 Ways to Navigate Ethics in the Life Sciences

Ethics scale

Jordan WarshafskyEthics scaleBy Jordan Warshafsky, Partner, Ashton Tweed

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With gene editing clinical trials starting in humans and drug pricing taking center stage in our industry, it’s important to remember our ethics. For most companies, an ethical business means playing by the rules, working honestly and fairly, and keeping the stakeholders’ interests as top priority. But for the life sciences, it means a lot more. The scope of our social responsibility is even greater because we are dealing with people’s health and healthcare.


As an industry we are hoping to improve global health, whether that means preventing illnesses, curing diseases, or making the lives of patients and doctors easier and more efficient. But even with such noble intentions, we’ll inevitably face obstacles in our businesses that will test our ethics. In these situations, we will need to keep our standards strong.


Having worked in all corners of this industry, here are five ways I’ve learned to navigate ethics in the life sciences. Throughout this article, I’ll refer to Dr. Francois Nader, former CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals Inc., who used his own personal ethics to reinvigorate the company.


Develop a set of values for your company.

These core values will set a standard for you and your employees to uphold. A mission statement is also beneficial in the same manner. By displaying these values publicly as part of your brand, your company is compelled to maintain those principles. When Dr. Nader had to change NPS’ company culture to fit the organization’s new direction, he says they “defined a new set of values around the idea that everything we did was really focused on the patients exclusively.” That’s a high standard that certainly can’t be feigned.


Make ethics part of your decision-making strategy.

All business decisions should be weighed in light of your ethics – personal preference must be eliminated. Make this weighing a part of your decision-making strategy so that it is always a step in the process and is not at risk of being overlooked. Dr. Nader states, “We adopted a set of six values that were pretty much our compass and our center in everything we did: integrity, respect, personal accountability, excellence, teamwork and fun. The values became the anchor of the company and ultimately made us successful.”


Set some ground rules.

As a leader, be clear about what is acceptable and what is not as an effort to eliminate any gray areas. These rules cannot be broken, even if it means taking a loss. By defining these guidelines and making them known, they will become common practice. Keep in mind, not all companies have the same rules. Dr. Nader notes, “… there are certain behaviors or actions that are encouraged in a given culture and totally frowned upon in another culture – and the way the same action is viewed impacts outcome. For example, you have certain cultures where cutting corners is encouraged; in other situations, cutting corners is absolutely a no-no.”


Hire people that fit your morals.

This quality can be difficult to screen when interviewing candidates, but it’s very important to make sure that new hires reflect the company’s established culture. Values are smart to discuss during the interview process in order to gauge the candidate’s reaction and dedication to these ideals. After the candidate is selected, be sure to both reward ethical behavior and address actions that don’t meet your standards. Dr. Nader urges leaders to “make sure that your leadership team embraces and lives these values with no exceptions. The leadership team members project who they are and how they live the values in a very, very magnified way. Every employee looks up to the leadership team to see if what they’re doing is accepted or not based on the values the company has.”


Promote open conversation and honesty.

It is especially important never to lose sight of your morals in the face of competition or hardship. Management should stress personal integrity at all times. Open communication is critical in these circumstances for workers to feel comfortable discussing ethical dilemmas where the right answer may be unclear. When in doubt, follow the company’s policy. This type of trusting environment helps prompt companies and individuals to be honest both publicly and privately. As Dr. Nader puts it, “There is no difference between personal and professional values…” Therefore, it’s good to catch early on if someone has a different perspective on certain issues.


Don’t make exceptions.

If you feel pressured to do something unethical, talk to your supervisor or someone in HR in order to resolve the situation. There are no circumstances in which your ethics should be put on the backburner. Dr. Nader’s wise last piece of advice is “do not suffer any exceptions because the minute you tolerate a behavior that is not acceptable within the culture of the company and goes potentially against one of the values, then you completely lose credibility.” Companies hold a social responsibility that is rewarded by consumers if respected. People buy trust and are not quick to forgive a company that has broken their trust, making it vital to preserve your company’s reputation.


Your company’s ethics should not hinder innovation, but drive them! Although most of us feel that we are doing the right thing, it’s important to check your moral compass regularly. In an often controversial and fast-paced industry where there is pressure to improve human (and animal) health, the stakes are high. As technology and competition advances, it’s important to remember where you stand according to your values. Remember that, in the end, good ethics mean good business.


Looking for talent that reflects your company’s ethics? Contact me to discuss your needs.


Share your insights! Contact jamesrudman@ashtontweed.com to contribute your life sciences article.


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