Guide to Surviving a Merger

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The news hits you like a truck: the financial institution you work for has agreed to be acquired. Now what to you do?

While it might feel like your fate has been snatched from your hands, experts lay out several steps you can take to improve your chances of keeping your job after a merger. Through both words and deeds, you'll need to mount an active effort to prove your value to the new employer. You'll have to continue performing your role with aplomb, while meticulously building the case that you're a "keeper." Don't simply go about your work, waiting for the ax. If you do, it will probably fall.

While the merger is under way, "Be known, be helpful, be cooperative and, to the extent that you can, be essential," says Bettina Seidman, a New York career coach. Besides making the new management aware of your drive and commitment to stay with the firm, Seidman urges, "Raise your profile in your profession and your industry even more than before." That doesn't just make you more marketable outside, it also boosts your survival chances inside, by showing you're not just another body filling a seat.

Be Pro-Active

The same advice applies to employees of a business that takes over another, although they're usually in less danger than staffers of the acquired firm. In most cases, observes New York career coach Win Sheffield, "The people who are doing the acquiring are in the driver's seat." They'll be looking to cut expenses - such as you, your teammates and even your boss. At some point the new powers-that-be will review the entire staff before deciding who will go and who will be offered a chance to stay. If you're perceived as just an average performer, Sheffield says, you'll probably be sent packing.

When new management is in place, "You have to treat your old job as if it were a brand new job," says Vicky Oliver, author of Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers and Other Office Idiots. "You have to sell yourself to that (new boss) in a palatable way."

Even if your firm isn't being acquired, Sheffield recommends beginning to marshal information about successful projects and other past accomplishments, for use in case a merger suddenly pops up. If your company is acquired somewhere down the line, you'll need to prove you were a superior worker long before the acquisition happened.

Accentuate the Positive

After a discreet interval, Oliver recommends requesting a meeting with your new boss so you can explain your work product and accomplishments, much as you would in a job interview. Bring copies of "glowing e-mails about your performance" from clients or customers, she adds. "Essentially you are initiating your own review, and you are doing it in a seemingly informal manner, but you're going in there preparing."

An upbeat, positive tone is essential. "Speak positively about the people you've worked with," says Sandy Gross, founder and managing partner of Pinetum Partners LLC, a Greenwich, Conn., recruiting firm focused on the hedge fund sector. "Be aware what your skill set can bring to table in this new merged environment. Talk about what you've achieved in the past, talk about results and how they can be parlayed into this new position. But take care that what you say about yourself is accurate, is justified."

Seeking to "climb over others" in your group by voicing frank criticism of them is likely to backfire, warns Oliver. If asked for your opinion about a teammate, take care to be gracious and don't give up too much information. "You don't know the (new manager) well enough to be taking them into your confidence," she explains.

Another thing to avoid during the merger-integration period is showing signs of panic, or visibly conducting a job search. Doing either can place your name in the rumor mill. Because post-merger hit lists are often in flux, a rumor that so-and-so got caught in the layoff can easily become self-fulfilling, Oliver says.

Sometimes, Gross notes, a merger can provide new opportunities. For example, when Barclays acquired Lehman Brothers' North American banking and trading operations late last year, Gross said some Lehman Brothers professionals she spoke with were "fairly excited" about leadership roles they were offered in the new organization. London-based Barclays, she observed, was looking at talent acquired from Lehman "to build a business here in New York for them."

Originally published Oct. 28, 2008

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