Company acquisitions look great on paper, but are only great in practice when the human element is considered thoroughly.
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Employees aren't just numbers on a page; they're people. An acquisition is a significant and often unsettling shift for employees, yet these concerns are commonly neglected as details about products, finances, and other, more quantifiable items are ironed out.
Every company has its own working culture, and when an acquisition happens, two potentially very different cultures are suddenly combined. Maintaining a great culture is unquestionably a significant factor in the experience of working for a company.
In an acquisition, it is important to be clear about company culture up front with new employees, in order to smooth the transition for them and prevent uncertainty and confusion. At Bullhorn, we've acquired more than ten companies and have learned a lot along the way.
Here are our suggestions for how to create a healthy, positive company culture following an acquisition.
Clarity and feedback
A successful acquisition always begins with planning. Make sure everybody in both companies knows what to expect from the process and reassure them wherever possible that their position is not at risk.
Next, the acquiring company must consider how they will onboard their new employees and acclimatise them to a new culture. This is an ongoing process, not a single event: efforts to unify the team need to be concerted and take place over months, not days.
Even companies which have not undertaken a merger can benefit from team building and establishing esprit de corps, so there's no downside to investing in an extensive onboarding process.
It's also critical to solicit honest feedback from within both organisations at every stage of the process. This can take many forms, from large, open meetings to one-on-one informal discussions, but it's also essential to offer anonymous feedback – particularly regarding culture – through online surveys. The anonymity that these afford encourages people to voice their opinion honestly.
Once you have this information, it's important to act on it and make clear how you are doing so to your employees. For instance, to head off concerns about favouritism following a merger, the acquiring company should develop a consistent approach to handle fairness in career advancement.
By creating standards and applying them equally, you can assuage employees' concerns and set them off to a good start with the company.
Another piece of practical advice is to avoid unnecessary delays. Rushing is certainly inadvisable, but many mergers go too far in the opposite direction. Overly cautious and slow mergers extend the period of anxiety and don't allow people to adjust.
Everybody expects the process to be a little bumpy early on, but the later that issues arise, the more serious they appear.
Culture and values
Culture and core values are perhaps the most neglected elements of company policy, which is unfortunate as they can be incredibly powerful in creating a positive, happy workforce. Effective company values must be inclusive, not exclusive.
Inclusive cultural missions are best expressed as behaviours; things that individuals can do rather than who employees are. That way, there is a clear way that new employees – particularly following an acquisition – can fit in, and anyone from any background can become a successful member of the group.
Culture is not about perks and benefits, and it's definitely not about gimmicks. You know your culture is thriving and impactful when employees talk about it organically and not just when prompted, and when they choose to live the values rather than being coerced into doing so.
At Bullhorn, more than 65 percent of our senior leaders rose through the ranks rather than being hired at that level, which we believe speaks to the influence of culture and the staying power it creates.
We developed Bullhorn's core values 15 years ago by studying customers we admired and learning from the best examples.
But these values aren't static: we continually listen to employees about how culture can be improved and how we can support those improvements. Recently, we created an employee vision statement as the result of direct feedback and then further revised it in collaboration with employees.
Overall, while culture may not be something that you can directly measure, it is something that directly impacts your employee wellbeing, productivity, and therefore the bottom line. Successful acquisitions consider cultural concerns at every stage, and every level of the company, and produce a better work environment for employees as a result.
Peter Linas is Executive Vice President of Corporate Development and International, Bullhorn.