MLR

New ownership? How to quell employee fears

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Acquisitions, mergers and new leadership bring opportunities, but they also bring new threats.

man extending hand

When the change is not handled skillfully, the costs to the organization can be enormous.

Too often, businesses invest a lot of time and resources in the technological aspects of a merger or acquisition, while neglecting the human aspects. This is a mistake.

The people who comprise the new organization will make or break the change effort.

People are comfortable with what they know, and they cling to their familiar routines. They fear the uncertainty that comes with change. Consequently, all change, even when seen as necessary or constructive, generates resistance.

Unless managers understand this and take steps to ease the transition for employees, there is a good chance that those employees will undermine the change process, even if unintentionally.

All change, even when seen as necessary or constructive, generates resistance.

Understanding employees’ reactions

Fear is the No. 1 emotion felt by employees faced with a merger or acquisition. Suspicion or mistrust runs a close second. Managers must keep this in mind so they can safely navigate the transition.

Employees wonder – in fact, dwell on – how is this going to affect me? Will I lose my job? Will my job, my co-workers, my manager change? Will I have tons of new work dumped on me? Will I like my job after the change?

The fear tends to be worse for the employees whose company is being acquired. They may feel betrayed by their company for “selling out.” They often worry that their jobs will be redundant or that they will be required to relocate or report to a new manager.

Even when the change is presented as a merger, there is usually fear in the smaller company that it is just a guise for an acquisition or takeover.

You hear the word “stepchildren” a lot: “Are we going to be the stepchildren in this big company?”

And realistically, employees of the smaller company probably do face the greatest amount of change, but even the employees of the larger company in mergers and acquisitions have their share of fear and mistrust.

Other common emotions include shock, disbelief, sadness and anger. These feelings can be manifested in emotional outbursts ranging from tearful to outraged, in increased doctor visits, substance abuse, job hunting and time spent updating resumes instead of working, and occasionally even in active sabotage.

But capable management practices can minimize the fallout and help employees face the changes constructively.

Helping to ease the change process for employees

The prime antidote to fear and mistrust is honest, transparent communication. Don’t retreat behind a veil of silence. You must stay in contact with your employees to earn their trust. Following are some pointers for how to do that:

  • Share as much information about the changes as you can, as soon as you can.
  • Once the acquisition or merger has been announced, schedule meetings with employees, in person if possible, to address their concerns.
  • Explain the reasons for the changes in simple, candid terms.
  • If you are asked about things that you cannot reveal, then say so rather than hedging. For example, say “I’m sorry but I can’t talk about that at this time. I will let you know as soon as I can.”
  • Be honest about the negatives. If some of the changes will be painful, say so, and get them over with as soon as possible. Then shift the dialogue from fear to hope.
  • Tell employees how the changes are good for the company and for them. Show them the opportunity.
  • Practice “management by walking around”; that is, get out of your office more than usual. Ask people how they are doing. Let them see that you care, even if you can’t take away their fears.
  • Explain steps that are being taken to resolve any problems. Employees need to know that their managers are competent and on top of things.

Most of what is needed from managers at this time is not any different from good management practices in general – you just need them more than ever.

Things like: Tell employees what you expect of them. Don’t overwork people and burn them out. Allow as much autonomy as possible – employees know their jobs better than anyone else does.

If managers do what they have been trained to do, and keep the communication honest and open, they will gain the trust and loyalty of their employees. They will do everything they can to help the newly formed organization be a success.