Talk to employees during M&As

Employees usually feel uncertain during change, but open communication can keep morale high

People, generally, fear change. Especially in the workplace, when new strategies can make employees uncomfortable and elicit a variety of emotions. Employees placed in uncertain positions tend to internalize a variety of reactions, from fear and anxiety to acceptance and excitement. During a merger or acquisition, organizations should anticipate and manage those emotions.

The most important element to managing employees’ emotions during a merger or acquisition is communication. Timely, honest and open communication, rooted in good leadership, will make the difference between high or low employee morale.

Once senior management is aware of an imminent merger or acquisition, it is critical to develop a communications plan. Employees need to be apprised of the situation by leaders early on.

This information will help set expectations for employees as well as feed the rumour mill with factual information so employees get real, as opposed to fabricated or convoluted, information.

It is imperative to communicate the reasons for the merger or acquisition, provide a comprehensive communication plan to delineate timelines for achieving the new structure, share the transition plans with employees and allow them to be involved in the process.

When developing a communications plan the following elements should be in place:

a single person to control or co-ordinate the communications effort;

a PR or communications agency or a communications team, consisting of communications professionals and organizational leaders;

awareness of regulatory and union rules and guidelines;

a series of questions and answers for the organization’s leadership, including the board of directors;

comprehensive and consistent information for employees, shareholders, investors and media; and

access to multiple communication channels.

Communication tactics will vary depending on the organization and industry but the following components should always exist.

Communicate regularly in multiple ways: At the early stages of a merger or acquisition, information can be limited. But it is better to share what little information there is than remain silent. Silence during times of uncertainty is fertile ground for assumptions and rumours. Also, by sharing information regularly employees will be less inclined to assume the worst. Ensure the information is communicated to employees using various channels, such as large and small group meetings, company intranet, e-mails, newsletters and bulletin boards.

Manage uncertainty: Schedule regular update meetings. Meet with groups to share information. For matters that will have an impact on a large number of employees — such as a relocation, closures or layoffs — meet with the entire group to prevent distorted information from being spread internally and externally.

Stay focused: In most organizations supervisors and middle management are seen by employees as a source of information. To provide accurate information, company leaders at all levels should be provided with the same information so the message is consistent.

Be sensitive: Employees are worried about their future, their job and the impact the change will have on their family. Leadership should demonstrate patience and sensitivity when interacting with employees.

Coaching and listening skills needed: Leaders should be given basic coaching and communication training so they can effectively share and reinforce information to employees.

Be visible and accessible: While it is important for communications professionals to be equipped with facts, it is more important for the organization’s leadership to be available to employees. Accessibility to management can take the form of open-door policies, leadership blogs and in-person meetings.

Involve employees: In times of mergers and acquisitions, employees will focus on their own future. It is important to recognize this and obtain their input as to where they see themselves in the new structure. Employee involvement can lead to a successful merger, with people more committed to their new roles because they feel they are a part of the decision-making process.

Honesty is imperative: Sugar coating the facts will not make the situation any easier. Tell employees the truth — if layoffs are imminent, say so. Share the plans the organization has developed to help employees through the difficult time. Plans can include counselling, transition services, relocation assistance, education or retraining assistance and severance packages.

Facts only: When disseminating information, provide only the facts. Personal opinions should be left out.

Engaging employees and ensuring a high and positive morale is fundamental to the success of any organization. Motivated employees help keep an organization moving forward. During a merger or acquisition, employees can experience a host of emotions and rely on information to help guide them through those uncertain times.

Karen Traboulay is a marketing communications specialist and a member of the Toronto chapter of the San Francisco-based International Association of Business Communicators. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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