Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Survival strategies as companies change
Patricia Kitchen

It was four years ago that Maggie Mistal and some colleagues at Arthur Andersen had the rug pulled out from under them.

They had heard the rumblings about the big accounting firm's difficulties. But that didn't lessen the shock one afternoon as they were gathered at Rosie O'Grady's bar in New York City. The Arthur Andersen logo appeared on the TV with the word “indicted” underneath.

“It was the most surreal experience I ever had,” says Mistal, 33, who had been with the firm for seven years. “We all felt we were marketable. But we knew that life as we knew it was over.”

Such is the impact of hearing that your employer is the subject of dramatic news: whether it has been censured, merged, stripped of its senior people — or bought, as was the news at Symbol Technologies last week. The Long Island, N.Y.-based company is being acquired by Motorola, which has headquarters in Schaumberg, Ill.

According to FactSet Mergerstat Llc, a mergers and acquisitions information firm in Santa Monica, Calif., 6,563 US companies have been bought so far this year, at a value of $730 billion. And Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas says there have been 267,106 layoffs in the United States this year alone as a result of closings, restructuring or merger/acquisitions.

Still, knowing there are others in the same boat isn't much consolation for those who are experiencing the uncertainty and anxiety that can come with such announcements.

What's most important at a time like this is for a company to share what information it can, says Lise Poulos, senior vice president of human resources and public affairs at Symbol — even though at the early stages there are many unknowns. “It's almost impossible to communicate too much,” she said in a phone interview from San Jose, Calif., where she was meeting with employees.

The company is planning town hall-style meetings, a newsletter and a spot on the company intranet to keep employees informed as the “integration” process moves forward.

Employers going through major change often see a dip in productivity and an uptick in absenteeism, says Bill Heather, senior vice president in the Melville office of Right Management, which conducts programs to help managers and employees deal with change.

There's no one typical form of employee reaction. Heather cited three categories:

“Change-hardy” employees — those who look to learn about the company's new direction and, to the degree they can, align themselves with the new management team.

Sceptical employees who see no opportunities — some of whom may even try to block new initiatives.

The deer-in-the-headlights employees — those who become paralysed, essentially staying out of sight and hoping nothing bad happens to them.

Of course, there is little wonder there's so much anxiety. Those working for a company in flux may face the potential loss of livelihood, comradeship and a sense of identity, and those who stay may witness the more subtle and gradual dissolution of a culture, of pride in doing projects in a certain way, of a legacy that has been built up.

Mistal, who has gone on to become a career coach, is working with a client at an advertising company who says “the hardest part is seeing everything you've built being slowly dismantled”.

Still, despite the uncertainty and discomfort, experts and those who have been through such change say there are useful things employees can do. “You can't control an acquisition, but you can control how you react to it,” says Pat Sileo, a former human resources manager with Symbol who left the corporate world three years ago and now runs tea&tiques, a shop in Huntington.

Mistal knew she wanted to move on to a different career, and she tried not to get too caught up in the steady rehashing of gossip and rumours. She signed up for a programme with the Life Purpose Institute and took classes by phone in how to find a new direction. That led her to conduct a workshop for 25 of her Andersen colleagues in how to do the same. She decided to become a career coach and is now host of a career talk show on Martha Stewart Living Radio on Sirius Satellite Radio.

She says employees in such workplaces should try to answer these questions: 1) Do I have a future here? and 2) Do I want a future here?

Along those lines, here are suggestions on how to stay proactive in a time when, admittedly, there is often a void of useful and specific information on the employer's new direction — and what it all might mean for you.

Yes, for many people the changes can be painful. But for some, an environment that is in flux can offer opportunities. You don't want to assume everything will be rosy, but you should keep an eye out for shifts that may be beneficial to you. Sometimes a logjam is broken when senior people are relocated or let go, offering a chance for you to get a promotion — or maybe just a better boss, says Allison Hemming, president of The Hired Guns, a Manhattan staffing firm for contingency workers.

People do survive, whether within the company or with a new employer, or in their own entrepreneurial ventures, as Donna Anselmo points out.“Attitude is very powerful,” says Anselmo, who worked for Olsten Staffing when it was acquired by Adecco in 2000. She stayed on through the transition, was recruited to another firm and is now president of Comvergence Marketing Group in St. James.

Review your work history and list your contributions, just as you would if you were asking for a raise, Hemming says.

No, this is not to send to potential employers. Rather, it's useful for reminding those you work with — and informing new arrivals — about your background, contributions and skills. Of course, it may also come in handy in the outside world if the necessity arises.

That's what Manhattan career writer and speaker Lindsey Pollak says. But often there is so little useful information in many workplaces during the limbo period. And we all know what flows into such a vacuum: rumours, innuendo and speculation, some of which is rooted in fact but much of which is not.

Mistal says that with projects on hold after the Andersen announcement, many colleagues got wrapped up in the gossip scene, focusing more on the machinations of what was happening with the company and less on what might be happening to themselves.

So it's valuable to assess the sources of information as well as seek out data on your own. One source would be managers willing to sit down with employees, listen to their concerns and share the bits of information that they do have, Heather says.

Sileo says that if she were still at Symbol,“I would be on the Motorola Web site” to learn about the company and its culture.