Merging staffs requires touch

Dear Joan:
Although I am not a "business" person I read your column each week and always find it interesting. Most of the issues you address I find can be easily generalized to other parts of life.

Even though I have been enjoying your responses and think highly of them, it wasn't occurring to me that you would be the perfect person to look to for guidance in my work situation. I imagine that is because I resist thinking of my place of work as a "business." I know that it must be, but it doesn't jive with how I see myself and my work.

I am a staff nurse in the Emergency Department of a medium size community hospital. I have worked there for the better part of 8 years and enjoy it very much.

Approximately 2 years ago, much to everyone's surprise, we were told that in a short time we would be merging with our chief competitor. It was quite a blow to us and has caused a multitude of uncomfortable situations, bad feelings and loss of top notch personnel. Although the hospital management has begun to see the magnitude of the "people" problems, (it seems that they've been focusing entirely on building/remodeling/financial matters.) they seem lost.

I know that mergers are a fact of life but I suspect the physical merging of staffs that must work together as a team minute by minute are less common.

I feel we need some outside ideas and/or guidance. I'm hoping that you could address the problems inherent in merging in a column-perhaps suggesting some strategies for bringing 2 resistant groups of people together. Our hospitals have been legally merged for 2 years but the physical merger (smaller hospital moving in with larger hospital) will take more than an additional year.

You have hit the nail on the head. In a survey of top executives of companies that were involved in a merger or acquisition in 1985, the consulting firm Egon Zehnder International found that 84% of them believed "people problems" were more likely to affect the long-term success or failure of a merger than financial problems. Estimates vary, but some experts say that about one-third of all mergers fail within five years and as many as 80% to 90% never live up to expectations.

First, let's look at some strategies for integrating the two companies and then let's apply them to your staff. Even if the merger is poorly handled by the organization, your work group may be able to take some steps to ease the integration of the new workers.

It's unclear whether your hospital has been acquired or if it's the other way around. There is a tendency for the smaller company to think of the deal as a merger, while the larger company calls it an acquisition. Since talented employees have left, your company has probably been "acquired."

Unfortunately, the fact that you were shocked by the news signals that good communication has been lacking. Experts are united in their claim that lack of communication is at the root of most of the problems in a merger. Rumors and perceptions rather than facts fill this information vacuum. Worst case scenarios spread rapidly and productivity drops off sharply. The best talent heads for the door.

Once the two companies co-exist, a culture clash often occurs. Policies, compensation, communication styles, even dress codes are different. The two groups have a natural tendency to hold on to their way of doing things. It becomes more complicated when there is a rich company history and a lot of pride.

In your case, where the companies were competitors, there will be even more rivalry. There may be a tendency to diminish the other group. For example, if managers at the parent company never take lunch breaks and the acquired company employees are used to a break for an hour every day, it's easy for the parent company employees to think the other group is lazy.

Corporate culture is going to take on new meaning for the two groups as you struggle to understand how the other group is used to operating. Here are some suggestions for your companies:

·        Put together an integration team. Ideally this should include executives from both companies. In the article "The Forgotten Factor in Merger Mania," (Training Magazine, February, 1987), author Beverly Geber states, "If the acquired company has only token representation, it's doubtful the merger will go smoothly. The team should be small enough to work quickly. Its responsibilities should include defining the new structure, designing communication plans and figuring out how to solve cultural clashes. A human resources professional (and, perhaps, an outside consultant should be on this team."

·        Communicate constantly. Employees will feel insecure and unsettled. They want to be treated like adults and to hear the business reasons for the merger so they can buy into it.

Some companies have set up special sections of their newsletter for merger news, many use face-to-face meetings, which are extremely helpful, and some widely scattered companies even install a toll-free hot line for answers to employees' questions.

Companies often fail to communicate because the details haven't been worked out. It's ok to say, "we don't know all the particulars on this issue but we'll let you know as soon as we do." If people believe the company is lying or hiding something, distrust and cynicism will spread rapidly.

·        Tell people where they stand as soon as possible even if it means that the truth is that some people will lose their jobs. One company president told his executives that they would be let go. He told them in person that they would receive generous severance packages and he asked them to stay and help with the transition. By treating them as he would have wanted to be treated, he gained credibility. Better to tell people upfront, than to send a signal that you, too, could disappear in the night.

·        Involve the employees. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Yale management professor, says, change is a threat when it is done to you but an opportunity when done by you. Invite input, develop departmental task forces to figure out how individual departments can be merged, hold problem solving meetings and have social events, planned by teams composed of representatives of both groups.

·        Show by your actions that the company cares and will treat its employees with dignity and respect. This is especially true when lay offs are involved. Speeches and newsletters won't mean a thing if the "survivors" see their former co-workers thrown out the door.

Now, for your group. The supervisor would be wise to call frequent meetings of the merged group to begin to dissolve the us vs. them mentality. One of the first things he or she could do is to ask members of each group to identify the things about their former situations that they enjoyed the most. This might include work procedures, policies and communication tools. These can be written on a flip chart and discussed as good ideas that the new team should consider adopting. This could work especially well if the leader calls the ideas "ours," not group A's or B's ideas.

If both cultures differ on how something was done in the past, a compromise might be the only answer. A wise supervisor will let the underdog have an influence on the other group to set the tone that signals "neither group has the upper hand...the only thing that counts is good ideas that will help the team solve its problems"

Because you work in an emergency room, it will be vital to operate as a team very quickly. Several training sessions may be required to familiarize the newcomers with the system. This will be accepted more willingly if the reasons for the procedures are emphasized in terms of the well being of the patient rather than a list of rules that must be followed. Period.

Host a welcoming event that will allow the new group to get to know each other more informally. This might take the form of a coffee and donut reception planned and executed by the parent company employees.

You may want to set up a buddy system, which would pair up one individual from each group. The newcomers are bound to feel uncomfortable and will be hesitant to ask questions. In your environment, that could be fatal. If trust begins between two people, it might begin to spread to the entire group.

It can take up to ten years before two companies' ways of doing things mesh into one definable culture. It cannot be imposed. Unfortunately, most companies fail to realize the value of including their human resources personnel in the planning of a merger. Frequently, these professionals, or an outside consultant could ease the transition and provide guidance on the most important and forgotten element in merger mania-the people.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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