Driving Employee Engagement in M&A Transactions

Change is always hard, and when organizations with distinctly different cultures and styles come together in the course of a merger or acquisition, it can be even harder. It’s important to clearly and consistently communicate with employees to keep them engaged and inspired during this period of change, heading off a potentially material impact on the organization’s bottom line. Consider the following best practices when planning for an integration:

Understand the landscape
Is this a deal between two private companies? Is it a private/public transaction? Or are you looking at the combination of two public entities? These three distinct scenarios all necessitate different communication strategies, cadences, and regulatory and financial requirements.

Have a plan
Get moving on a plan for pre- and post-merger/acquisition communication. Determine what people need to know, your desired outcomes and how you’ll achieve them. Make sure the plan outlines strategies and messaging to communicate the following types of information:

Context: What’s going on in the industry, economy or business environment that sparked this merger/acquisition?

Business Strategy: Where is the new company going, how does it plan to get there and how will the merger/acquisition help?

Individual: How will the merger/acquisition impact individual employees and teams in their work environment?

Get your team together ASAP
Everyone needs to be on the same page and tell the same story. Get communicators from both companies together as quickly as possible, and involve investor relations if one or more of the organizations is public so you can begin working as a team. This is important even during periods of time when, legally, the companies must communicate separately. Everyone needs to be consistent with big-picture messaging before, during and after the merger/acquisition.

Communication must be constant
First and foremost, your employees will want to know two things: what will change, and what will it mean for me? Focus your communication on information that will help answer these questions. Then, plan regular communication throughout the entire change process. Keeping employees updated helps avoid paralysis and sustains morale, both of which are critical to maintaining productivity and top-line revenue.

Talk about what you know, and what you don’t
If you don’t give information, rumors will certainly fill the void. And rumors only lead to reduced productivity and increased employee anxiety. You don’t have to wait until decisions are final to communicate. Share what you know (to the extent that it can be made public), but also be honest about what you don’t know yet. If possible, share a timetable for when more information and decisions can be expected. Don’t speculate to make people feel better. It destroys your credibility inside and outside of the company.[click_to_tweet tweet=”If you don’t give information, rumors will certainly fill the void. And rumors only lead to reduced productivity and increased employee anxiety. You don’t have to wait until decisions are final to communicate.” quote=”If you don’t give information, rumors will certainly fill the void. And rumors only lead to reduced productivity and increased employee anxiety. You don’t have to wait until decisions are final to communicate.”]

Share thinking, not just decisions
Employees want to know the “why” behind a decision — even if they don’t agree. They want to know what was considered when the decisions were made. Explain the reasons for making changes and illustrate the need with industry or corporate information.

Deliver experiences, not just information
Don’t rely on words alone, or on the cascading of information. Engage audiences through different communication channels — such as town halls, division meetings and other forums — but also through activities that will help them better embrace the changes. For example, create brand videos, host “speed dating” sessions across organizations, and plan “experience rooms” where people can preview the new environment, if a relocation is involved. Adding visual and interactive experiences helps minimize the unknown and engages people in the change.

Invest in message training
For most organizations, managers, directors and supervisors often carry the weight of bringing information to the front lines. But, truth be told, these people are often operational experts, not communication experts. It’s a worthwhile investment — of time and money — to provide training on key messages and change management to these leaders, so that they are better equipped to communicate change to their teams. The better equipped they are, the more quickly staff will move through the stages of change.

Align internal and external messages
What you say externally must align with what you say internally, or you risk losing credibility with your stakeholders. Coordinate the timing and delivery of messages across all audiences, ensuring that everyone gets the information they need and that the messages are consistent. Private/public and public/public transactions complicate the cadence of communication. Understand what needs to be communicated and with whom, and the regulatory constraints surrounding timing.

Pay attention to what people are saying
If you know what people are saying, you can address issues as they come up instead of letting them fester. Develop a plan to monitor what internal and external audiences are saying about the merger/acquisition. Monitoring methods may include giving employees the opportunity to ask questions at town hall meetings, spending time in offices and in the field, informally talking to employees and customers, and monitoring social media, internal channels and industry blogs.

Repeat, repeat, repeat
There’s a reason you see a commercial repeatedly: the average person needs to hear or see something seven to 10 times before they remember it. And in times of high stress — like a merger or acquisition — the number is even higher. Continue sharing consistent and important information with your employees.

Lastly, never forget that your employees will drive the success of your merger or acquisition. Without engagement and consistent and transparent communication, the risk of failure increases.

This article originally appeared in O’Dwyers, August 2018 – Finance and Professional Services Issue.

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