Five Key HR Roles During an M&A (But Only One is REALLY Key)

I get a lot of press releases in the course of a week, and sometimes, you get one that has something that is not only interesting, but it also gets you thinking about an important but little discussed topic that is buried in the back of your brain.

So it was this week when Mercer, the giant global consultant and provider of outsourcing services, sent out a press release to tout a training workshop. Nothing terribly special about that, of course, but it was what Mercer did to help tout the workshop that was pretty interesting.

In the press release, Mercer listed “the five key roles senior human HR leaders must play before, during, and after mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity.  These five key roles reflect Mercer’s extensive M&A consulting experience in all types of deals and across global industries and markets.”

Okay, NOW I’m really interested. I’ve been involved in a few M&As over the years, so I have a pretty good sense of how HR can make them go better. So see if this list of the five key HR roles in an M&A make sense to you:

  1. Serve as a trusted adviser to executives and the deal team.
  2. Be the HR/people subject-matter expert.
  3. Provide timely and actionable input before, during and after the deal.
  4. Help shape the post-close organization.
  5. Manage the intense flow of information and related employee anxiety.

Most of these “key HR roles” during an M&A seemed vague and hard to get my hands around, but one jumped off the page — managing the intense flow of information and related employee anxiety.

HR needs to be engaged in any big organizational change

My experience is that this is a key HR role not only during a merger or acquisition, but ANY time there is a big change going on in an organization that has the potential to put people on edge.

The fact is, many companies fail to really communicate with employees in times of great change despite all the hype that “employees are our most important asset.” And if you have ever been in the middle of a big change in your business, particularly one that maybe drags out over weeks or months, you know how difficult it can be keeping employees focused and truly productive when they are distracted by the workplace events going on around them.

There’s no easy way to handle this expect to communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more.

In my book, you can’t communicate too often or too much, but unfortunately, many organizations fail to keep that in mind and shoot themselves in the foot by failing to really keep their workforce informed about what is happening and the impact it will have on them (and their jobs).

Why are employees ignored when a big change hits?

A couple of years ago when we went through the banking crisis, Lehman Brothers basically ignored its employees and didn’t communicate with them as the business was melting down. One can make a case that trying to stop the meltdown is Job #1, but how much worse did they make it by leaving their “most important asset” out in the cold?

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As I wrote at the time:

As the company’s fate teetered over the weekend, Lehman workers were at their desks waiting to hear what was going to happen. There was a lot going on, but unfortunately, no one bothered to tell — or even think about — the workforce. When the decision came, Lehman workers heard about their fate the way everyone else did: from the media.

It’s easy to say that the fate of Lehman’s workforce should be secondary to the fate of the company itself, and although that may be true in a narrow sense, how does it square with the typical pronouncements that most companies (including Lehman) love to mouth about people being their most important asset?

It doesn’t square, of course, but that’s partly because most companies just don’t have systems in place to deal with  catastrophic issues like 9/11 or what happened on Wall Street this weekend. Not only do they never consider the possibility, they just don’t ever do much “what if?” planning on how to quickly communicate news of this sort to the company’s workforce. And that lack of basic HR crisis planning can have all sorts of ripple effects..

Yes, a critical HR role is to keep the communications channel open and full of the information the workforce needs to know — and the more information, the better it is. HR can truly be the calming factor in an organization by helping to keep that “related employee anxiety,” as Mercer puts it, down to a manageable level.

The role HR can play

I’m not sure how valuable this Mercer M&A-related workshop will be — you can check it out here — but for my money, it is pretty useful if it just spends some time focusing on the role HR can play managing information and the natural anxiety that evolves when an organization is going through some sort of cataclysmic change.

“Senior HR leaders, who have not had to ‘worry’ about deals for a few years, now have a fantastic opportunity to refresh their education about what it takes to successfully manage HR’s role in M&A,” said Elisha Mayer, Senior M&A Consultant for Mercer, in a press release about the workshop. “The smartest HR professionals are preparing for M&A activity in advance, testing their processes before they are actually needed and revising them as necessary. Early preparation helps HR professionals avoid costly mistakes.”

Yes, early preparation can help HR professionals avoid costly mistakes in all sorts of situations. M&As are a big deal, but there are all sorts of other big deals that take place in the life of a business that need the same level of focus and preparation from HR as well.

And remembering that is something HR needs to be doing long before any big organizational change lands at their feet.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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