Surviving merger mania


If it hasn't happened to you, it's happened to someone you know. Experiencing a merger or acquisition firsthand has become commonplace in today's cutthroat business climate. The environmental industry in particular has been experiencing a wave of consolidations that has left few businesses unaffected.

Inevitably, corporate restructuring impacts the employees of the companies involved. Fortunately, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce your stress and increase your job security.

Be proactive

Most people caught in a merger or acquisition feel helpless. To stay in charge of the situation, remember that you are still the master of your own destiny. What will happen depends a great deal on the actions you take during this crucial time.

Assess the situation

This is a good time to take stock of your career. Ask yourself where you want it to go and what you want to be doing in five years. Think about whether your goals can be met at your restructured company or whether it's time to move on.

Karen DeWitt became an account manager with Kelly Scientific Resources, Houston, Texas, when her former position in the oil and gas industry was eliminated in a merger. DeWitt advised, "When a company merges, you have to make a conscious decision: Do I want to work for this company or not? That's the first step. The second is, if I don't want to work here, do I want to stay in this industry or do I want to do something different?"

Increase job security

If you have decided you want to stay with the company, you can promote your job stability by employing certain tactics. The following are good habits to practice throughout your professional career, even if you never experience a corporate reorganization.

Promote yourself. H. Stephen Jones, president of Executive Projects Consultants, an environmental project management company based in Ellicott City, Md., has been on both sides of the fence in corporate restructuring. In 1998, as senior manager for a national real estate provider, he made the difficult decision of whom to lay off during a major downsizing; later, he became a victim of management restructuring when his own job was eliminated.

During a transition period, it is vital that you make yourself visible. The two best ways to be tapped for a reduction are to been seen as a negative force — or not to be seen at all.

Jones offered some tips on surviving corporate reorganization. "You can't control your fate, but you can proactively influence it," he said. "The people who do that are the ones who achieve and become valuable resources. The ones who don't, and just let things happen to them, become the pawns in the game and become subject to dismissal based on just a head count."

The sad truth is that your continued success on the job often does not depend on how hard you work or on your competence. It depends in large part on your ability to impress the decision-makers at your company.

During a transition period, it is vital that you make yourself visible. Stay upbeat and active at work. The two best ways to be tapped for a reduction are to be seen as a negative force — or not to be seen at all.

It is your responsibility to let people know your skills, education and experience. One way to do so is to have a one-on-one meeting with your new boss. Create a personal marketing portfolio that includes a brief personal introductory statement, a list of accomplishments and an updated resume. Offering this information allows you to self-promote and gives the boss a better idea of how you will fit into the restructured company's new goals. During the meeting, ask your manager what is expected of you, and make sure those expectations are clear.

Keep a list of your professional achievements. Performance reviews often play an important role in the decision of who goes and who stays. "When I've had to make decisions about who I keep and who I don't keep, the employee's file is pulled out and their performance reviews are looked at to see what their contributions were," Jones said.

Keep your professional achievements updated quarterly. Don't wait for your annual review to write up everything you accomplished over the year. "Too often, in a performance review, the only things you focus on are what happened in the last three months," Jones said. Employees who do a good job of documenting their achievements gain a key advantage.

Participate in planning sessions. When organizations undergo significant change, fresh approaches and ideas are usually welcomed. This is your chance to shine. Being able to make your opinion heard also increases your sense of control in an uncertain situation.

Network. "Do you have strategic relationships? So many times it becomes who you know — and who those people know — that becomes a strength for you in a situation when you decide who you keep and who you don't keep," Jones said.

Many people feel squeamish about networking, misunderstanding it as exploitative. However, networking is a two-way street — it is collaborative and reciprocal. The main goal of networking is to develop meaningful relationships that benefit both parties.

Expand your network of contacts at your own company. While the acquiring company usually makes the decisions on who stays and who goes, it might seek input from the acquired company's management. It is vitally important that you have a good relationship with your boss and other co-workers who can vouch for you and the value you bring to the department.

It is equally important to build relationships with new co-workers. Act as if you are going to work for a new company and make every effort to meet your new colleagues. Your new company or department will expect you to integrate with current employees and perform as a team.

Nurture relationships and networks outside your company, too. You don't want to be someone who only shows up in hard times. Keep your network active — offer to help others and they will wind up helping you.

"A lot of people don't like to sell themselves. They're scientists, they're technicians, they are experts in their field. They're not in sales and marketing. It's different for them to have to wear a hat to market themselves," DeWitt said. "There are people and agencies out there that can help these individuals — they just have to be willing to go out there and let people know what their circumstances are."

The victims of corporate downsizing include not only those who lose their jobs but also those who are left behind to pick up the slack.

Update your skills. This is essential whether you aim to keep your old job or venture into the market for a new one. Examine yourself as critically as you would a business problem.

"Education is a process, not an achievement. Every day I learn something new," Jones said. Keep up with the latest technology by taking classes or workshops. You can also stay on top of what's going on in your industry through professional organizations and the business press.

Evaluate your financial situation. Talk to your financial advisor and calmly analyze your financial situation. The fear of financial calamity is often far worse than the situation warrants. Find out how long you could afford to hunt for a job you really want. Develop a financial reserve; you should have at least three months living expenses should your position be eliminated. This will help you avoid taking the first opportunity that comes along in order to make ends meet.

Keep a positive attitude. You are now part of a larger company and there are bound to be more activities, responsibilities and opportunities for everyone. Management will value employees who see the glass as half full instead of half empty.

"Instead of being a road block, be a catalyst," Jones advised. "If you embrace change, you are a rare individual. Any time you restructure a company, 80 percent of the employees are going to look at the negative side. But there's 20 percent, maybe even less, that see the change as an opportunity to move from where they are to a new position. They like the newness, the challenges that come with it, and those people have a real leadership quality that you're looking for."

Keeping a positive attitude will help you see the benefits that reorganization offers. For example, the transition period offers a great negotiating opportunity. Management is highly receptive to the morale needs of employees when layoffs occur, allowing you a rare chance to take care of those "me" issues.

Even if you don't stay with your present company, keeping a positive attitude is key to your continued success.

"You can't move forward if you have a vindictive, negative attitude. By having a good attitude when things happened, I was able to respond much more quickly than some people," DeWitt said.

Expect change

You will be facing a significant change, regardless on which side of the downsizing equation you may find yourself. The victims of corporate downsizing include not only those who lose their jobs but also those who are left behind to pick up the slack. Studies show that surviving the ax can be as stressful as being let go. The problem, of course, stems from the extra workload created by the newly departed. The double-edged sword of making the cut may mean greater career opportunities — but at the price of longer hours, more stress and potential burnout.

Whether you go or stay, the upside is that you can use the experience for personal growth and self-renewal. How you decide to respond will determine your future rewards much more than the event itself. It is simply a matter of keeping your own sense of purpose intact even when the world is changing around you.

Try adopting a Zen Buddhist approach — keep your mind open to every possibility. Don't resist change — it's inevitable. If you stay in your position, be prepared for the fact that your job requirements will probably change; management will place a high value on employees with the flexibility to adapt to new circumstances.

Stress management

All change, even positive change, is stressful. Acknowledge that the situation is not your fault. Try to keep everything in its proper perspective, and don't lose your sense of humor.

Ask for family and friends' support. Use stress control techniques that are helpful for you, such as exercise, meditation or prayer. Managing your stress will clear your mind, allowing you to make better decisions.

At work, don't try to cover all the bases by yourself. If you are in a position to delegate, do so. This is an opportunity to build teams and forge strong alliances. Support others and they will support you.

Stay in balance with the rest of your life. Despite being loyal to your company, your first loyalty must be to yourself. Your family, your health and your peace of mind must always take precedence over your employer's requirements.

Make lemonade out of lemons

If your position is eliminated, remember that although working through a layoff is difficult, the final result is often rewarding. "Those that are proactive will move forward and will find out there's always a life after the company they left. They did not realize how much happier they could be somewhere else," DeWitt said.

Laid-off workers often end up with better positions: higher pay, more opportunity for advancement and a more stimulating environment. Flexible employees can view the change as a chance to move up.

"If you've kept yourself positioned well, you literally can look at a pink slip as a new opportunity for yourself, just like the merger is a new opportunity for those still with the company. Keep that positive attitude," Jones advised.

Surviving a corporate restructuring requires preparation, communication skills and adaptability. Developing these attributes will not only help you in a time of career crisis, but throughout your entire professional life.

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This article appeared in Environmental Protection magazine, August 2000, Vol. 11, No. 8, p. 48.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.