When change comes looking for you

It was close to Christmas and instead of sending out a Happy Holidays memo, Donna Morris had to send out a press release warning staff about the potential of a hostile takeover by Open Text Corporation, a knowledge management software company.

“We had to shut down between Christmas and New Year’s. So, before that time we just tried to provide the company with as much information as possible on what we were trying to do to fight the bid by Open Text,” says Morris, former vice-president of human resources for Ottawa-based Accelio Corporation, a business process solutions provider.

Employees were shocked and scared by Open Text’s aggressive proposition, which was said to be an insulting offer that undervalued the corporation. Because Accelio was a publicly traded company, there was a lot of red tape to go through where communication was involved. Morris and her HR colleagues were forced to keep many details secret.

“People were extremely frustrated, it was the whole manner in which Open Text tried to take over. (But) we let them (staff) know that we couldn’t tell them much and that we were actively pursuing opportunities to be bought by different companies.”

Rumours passed through the grapevine. Many employees misunderstood what HR was trying to say and many assumptions were made. HR had to work closely with staff to attempt to relieve the tension and give staff a clearer picture of what was going on.

“As would be expected, it was an uncertain time, and emotions were running high,” says Morris. Any “grapevine talk” was addressed on a weekly basis. “I used to say, ‘Let’s make sure it’s not a rumour or innuendo because if one person has an idea in their heads, there must be others.”

Morris admits the unsettling times even had her worried, but she focused on helping employees through the transition. It’s a lot of stress on HR, she says. Just as everyone else is feeling uncertain, so is HR.

“It’s really important that HR people give themselves some time to deal with it on a personal level because we have the tendency to think about everyone else.”

Fortunately for Morris, workers at Accelio decided to take a “wait and see approach,” with the acquisition, and earlier this year Adobe Systems Inc., the U.S. graphics software giant, stepped in with a winning bid.

“If Adobe didn’t have the brand or recognition that they have, it wouldn’t have been so easy. One of the main factors was that our culture was similar to Adobe. It was not a perfect match, but very similar,” Morris says.

An integration team was created with representatives from both companies. Regular calls were made to all staff to inform them of any updates on the transition and a Web site was designed to provide information online. Morris says she wanted to make sure there were some major support mechanisms in place for workers. Some employees were not brought on board the Adobe team as new hires. Out of Accelio’s 650 employees, 150 were laid off. Those who received termination packages made use of the company’s outplacement services to find another job.

“The Adobe team did a great job in terms of new hires. There was a whole week of new hire and manager orientation,” says Morris, who was a new hire herself, taking on the position of senior director of talent at Adobe.

She says employees are just starting to settle in. They realize they’re working under different rules in a different organization, yet they are excited about the evolution of being a part of Adobe.

There was one critical factor in the turbulent takeover battle, says Morris. “Communication is the key to making sure employee concerns are addressed effectively. But be prepared to accept that you’re not going to have all the answers, but there are answers employees are going to want to receive.”

According to Marge Watters, partner at Knebel Watters and Associates, a career management firm, patience is a virtue when HR and management deal with employees during a transition. Honesty follows closely behind.

“Communicate clearly in several different ways and make it two-way. It’s not just the boss telling the people, it’s allowing that feedback to come back. The entire management group has to be open and patient when people keep asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

From the onset, workers should have a chance to vent and talk things thorough, Watters says. Employers often don’t understand that every single change causes a reaction out of people, particularly a sense of loss.

“It could be the loss of a certain view from the window, a connection to a group of people, or the loss of a favourite boss,” she says. “Organizations really need to pay attention to the fact that no matter what the changes are they’ll be creating stress. A little time and attention on this will pay back on productivity.”

Management can forget employees are people with feelings and families, says Wendy Donovan-Neale, principal of dmA Planning and Management services. Business leaders have to help people deal with their feelings and they have to be careful not to treat employees impersonally.

“People won’t admit what really upset them is that they can’t have coffee with certain people in the morning,” Donovan-Neale says.

Managers and business leaders need to understand there is a sense of loss, people need a chance to express it and then move on. If that doesn’t happen, the concept of the “marathon man” comes into play, she says. Leaders with new ideas are running with the idea and there are some “keeners” who are keeping up with the pace. Most are trying to catch up and then the “stragglers” slowly drop off, says Donovan-Neale.

“If there aren’t people keeping up with you, you’re losing that bunch of people in the middle who you don’t want to lose, they are your strength. The health of the organization is based on those people.”

During the ’90s, when resources had been cut back significantly at Hamilton’s McMaster University, staff had a hard time running the marathon. Morale was low and employees were not happy with the work environment. To get the majority of people back on track, the university conducted a workplace survey in 1998.

“We did the employee survey because we wanted to get a better understanding of the issues around morale and the quality of the workplace,” says university president, Peter George. Four staff task teams were formed to make recommendations on improving the workplace based on the survey results. About 20 recommendations were accepted by a leadership committee led by George. It was decided that four specific ideas needed to be implemented: the development of an employee newsletter, the creation of new employee lounges, the establishment of a core-competency model for managers and leaders, and providing tools, materials and resources to support employee career planning and development.

George has committed to leading a pilot project to assess the core competencies of managers and leaders at McMaster as part of the new “Working at McMaster initiative.” Six core competencies will be evaluated at the top executive level by anonymous 360-degree feedback. If the project is successful, it will be distributed across other areas of the university.

“It’s intended to diffuse right down to all management groups, right down to line managers. We thought it would send a message that even executives at the top are willing to learn how to be better managers. It will provide incentives to others to engage in similar processes and enhance their skills too,” says George. “Employees work better in an environment where management is informed, sensitive and capable. Anything that will help send those positive messages to staff is good.”

The task teams have worked on all four initiatives in the last two years, and most projects are near completion. A newsletter for employees called Perspectives connects employees with the university community, new staff lounges were created — in one newly-built lounge, there is a sign that reads, “times, they are changing,” — and a one-stop information career centre for employees was recently launched.

As for whether all these changes have altered the mood of the McMaster’s workforce, George says, “We’re (thinking) about doing another survey to see where we’ve made progress and where future work is needed.”

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