EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Sanofi-aventis, France: Business creation and entrepreneurship


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Business creation and entrepreneurship

For the past 20 years, sanofi-aventis, an international group in the pharmaceutical sector, has adopted a policy aimed at supporting business creation. This policy concerns all employees on a voluntary basis and operates independently of any restructuring process. It is implemented by a dedicated unit, which provides support to workers willing to set up their own business. Since 1987, some 1,000 employees have benefited from individual support.

Organisational background

Sanofi-aventis is a well-known international group producing and selling medicines. At the end of 2005, the company employed 97,181 workers, of whom 56.7% were based in Europe, 16.9% in the US and 26.4% in the rest of the world. Some 28.8% of the overall workforce is located in France, constituting 27,995 persons. About 45% of the employees are women and, generally speaking, the group is committed to promoting diversity in the workplace. In France, the group signed the Charter for Diversity in 2005.

Social dialogue is an important element within the group. In France, all of the main French trade unions are represented in the company and worker representatives are found at all levels. Moreover, a works council exists at group level and a European Works Council is also present. Interesting initiatives have been implemented regarding social dialogue within the group, through collective agreements or the setting up of specific entities in some countries, for example, a forum in the United Kingdom. In June 2006, a collective agreement was concluded in France pertaining to the integration of disabled persons.

The company also tries to develop a socially responsible policy in cases of restructuring through various means, including: support for geographical and occupational mobility within the group, external outplacements, and early retirement on the basis of a collective agreement concluded in December 2004.

Description of the initiative

The company’s initiative consists of a support process provided to employees who are willing to start their own business. This support is primarily implemented through a dedicated ‘start-up unit’ linked to the human resources management (HRM). This unit offers support at all stages of a business creation project that is initiated by employees on a voluntary basis. The voluntary nature of the business start-ups means that they are disconnected from a restructuring context; the management considers that this kind of entrepreneurial initiative should be based entirely on the workers’ own free will. The incubation strategy includes the following steps, which are managed by the dedicated unit:

  • The workers decide to get in touch with the start-up unit. In so doing, they have the opportunity to meet the unit’s manager within or outside of the company’s premises. A key principle of this phase is to assure workers that their initiative will remain confidential. This aspect is particularly important in order to maintain the employees’ confidence by avoiding negative consequences during all of the phases focused on the preparation and evaluation of the project. At this stage, the unit will assess the workers’ motivations and help them to formalise their initial ideas.
  • A second step aims to analyse the project in greater depth. The workers define their objectives, evaluate the potential market, and calculate their financial resources and personal needs as well as the project business plan.
  • Once the business and financing plans are ready, the start-up unit gives its opinion. The project is then submitted to the HR department of the unit in which the employees work, in order to decide whether they can benefit from the measures available to implement the project. If the HR department approves the project, the employees can take leave for business creation, in accordance with French labour law. This leave usually lasts one year and the employees are entitled to return to their former job at the end of the leave period. The employees can also decide to leave the company without benefiting from severance pay.

The role of the dedicated start-up unit is to support the employee in preparing for a successful project. A practical guide outlines all of the aspects of business creation, including financial and personal issues. In order to help the employees to focus on the relevant questions depending on their business idea, the unit also refers to material prepared by the Agency for Business Creation (Agence pour la Création d’Entreprises, APCE), such as data records regarding business creation for each sector. Moreover, the employees can benefit from specific training if necessary, financed by the company, or may be invited to enquire with the Chamber of Commerce about participating in management training.

In addition, the start-up unit has special funds at its disposal for each project. These funds can be used to finance market research, travel and the necessary documentation to draw up the business plan. The unit also has recourse to internal expertise, for instance regarding legal issues in order to analyse the legal aspects of the project. To ensure that the plan remains confidential, the unit calls on a limited number of personnel within the company.

The unit may also contact the operations department if it appears that sanofi-aventis could be the first client of the company to be created. However, the company does not use business start-ups to outsource its activities. After the new company’s creation, workers can avail of follow-up support provided by the start-up unit for up to three years and sometimes longer; those who have left sanofi-aventis can get in touch with the unit in order to review their situation. The workers are also given the opportunity to join the network of sanofi-aventis entrepreneurs. In addition, the new company can apply for loans under certain conditions.

Information about the initiative is available on the company’s intranet and at the HR department of each business unit within the group. A leaflet outlining the policy and its implementation is also available. The current measures were presented to worker representatives through the group-level works council in France. Worker representatives participate in the dissemination of the measures implemented.


Sanofi has implemented this initiative since 1987 and it has been maintained since the merger between Sanofi and Aventis in 2004. Originally, the measure was linked to Sanofi’s restructuring. However, it is now considered as a means to facilitate employees’ well-being, by offering them the chance to develop their business ideas independent of any restructuring concerns. To that extent, this policy is clearly an opportunity for the company to implement its social responsibility.

All employees of the group having a seniority of 24 months (as of the date on which the project is validated) can benefit from the business support initiative. Since 1987, some 1,000 employees have benefited from the company’s support. The initiative has ensured the creation or retention of more than 5,000 jobs. About 50% of these employees were men and 50% were women. In general, workers benefiting from the initiative are aged between 30 and 50 years old.

The business start-ups are mainly related to services and trade. Although the failure rate is difficult to assess, it is estimated to be less than 10%. The start-up unit seldom rejects a project; usually, employees themselves give up a project which is not viable. Confidentiality of the process allows the employees to test their ideas without taking any risk. Moreover, the initiative allows sanofi-aventis to promote a positive image towards its employees, as successful experiences are published within the company. In addition, costs of the initiative are low whereas the benefits are rather obvious; such a progressive strategy ensures employees’ loyalty and makes the company more attractive as an employer. Key elements for success include the following aspects:

  • the strong involvement of the Chair of sanofi-aventis, Jean-François Dehecq;
  • the existence of a dedicated start-up unit;
  • a demanding and confidential process;
  • follow-up support provided to former employees after business creation.

Exemplary and contextual factors

Sanofi-aventis is considered to be one of the first groups to have implemented a policy aimed at supporting entrepreneurship in a context other than restructuring. The company is also one of the founders of the Agency for Integration through Employment and Combating Exclusion (Dispositif d’Intégration par l’Emploi et de Soutien contre l’Exclusion, DIESE), which brings together several large companies willing to promote business creation as a means to foster economic growth and employment. This association has drawn up a charter establishing a series of commitments; Sanofi-aventis complies with all of these commitments. DIESE has also set up partnerships with other actors involved in business start-up support, such as APCE.

Cristophe Tessier, Université européenne du travail, Paris

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