After your company is acquired, play the game to win

There's one constant when your company is being bought: Your old loyalties won't do you any good. Plan accordingly

Dear Bob ...

I work for a small consulting company (fewer than 20 employees). Recently we were informed we're being sold to a much larger consulting company (more than 500 employees) with offices in several states. One of our two offices will be closed in a few months, and the other will remain open for the foreseeable future (the one our current owner operates from).

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob approaches acquisitions from the other side of the aisle in "When taking over a business, begin with the basics" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

The apparent reason for the acquisition is that the larger company, which is well regarded and highly skilled, is having difficulty obtaining clients in our specialty. This applies to both new clients and their existing clients. They have a small division that has tried to compete with us. It has been unsuccessful enough that we haven't even considered them a serious competitor.

It appears we're being acquired for our name and portfolio of business. I question their desire for our staff. We are told that everyone at my company will be offered a job at our current salaries, but will start as new employees as far as time in service and vacation/sick time.

I'd like your thoughts and advice regarding 1) the value of the acquired employees to the acquiring company (contrary to what we are hearing, I imagine that layoffs are inevitable); 2) how to best approach employment negotiations with the acquiring company; and 3) how to integrate myself into the new company in order to have the most success and survive any streamlining that may be on the horizon.

Your perspective would be greatly appreciated,

- Little fish being eaten by big fish

Dear Minnow ...

A few thoughts here:

First one: You're a 20-person company and the owner didn't negotiate a better deal for you and your colleagues? I know I'm second-guessing a situation where I don't know any of the specifics, which isn't entirely fair. Still, based on what I know about this sort of thing, unless your owner sold because the company's financial situation was challenging, it shouldn't have been difficult to arrange for his employees to maintain their time in service and appropriate level of vacation based on the acquiring company's standards.

Beyond offering second guesses, I wonder whether the advice I'd normally give -- to talk over with the owner just how sincere the acquiring company is about retaining you and your colleagues -- fits this scenario. Use your judgment. Typically, in a company this small, your relationship with the owner would be informal and straightforward, and you could have this conversation without stress -- not that he/she could give you any guarantees.

My own view (which makes some assumptions, of course): If the acquiring company is smart about how it handles this, it will recognize that the quality of the business relationship between your company and its current clients is built entirely around the individual employees who are visible to the clients. They are far more important than the company brand, image, and contracts. The acquiring company should be courting you instead of just giving you an opportunity to apply for your existing job. You can base some of your judgment about your future realities on whether they're doing so.

Employment negotiations: I'd advise you to play softball rather than hardball. Assuming they offer you what you described and you have the opportunity to have a discussion rather than a sign-here, take-it-or-leave-it interaction, say something like this: "Right now, I make x, which includes y weeks of vacation. You're offering me x, with (y-z) weeks of vacation. The cash value of (y-z) is $n.

"Will I accept your offer? Of course I'll accept it, and if your goal is for me to sign, that's what we'll do, I won't look back, and I'll be as effective an employee for you as I've been in the past. You are, however, asking me to accept a pay cut, and if you want me to feel 100 percent positive about this relationship when I start, a pay cut probably isn't the best way for us to start."

As is always the case in a negotiation, your tone matters as much as your words. You need to sound calm, professional, warm, friendly, and engaging. Any hint of stress or anger will damage your case.

However the negotiations go, once they're over, they're over. From that point forward, remind yourself every day that you're now an employee of the new company. Conversations about "how we used to do things" are death -- they'll make you sound like a grumbler, not an employee who is trying to help your employer succeed. The only time you should bring up how you used to do things is when your new manager asks you to.

Otherwise, you should be asking how your new employer handles things and getting up to speed as fast as you can, as you would if you'd been hired by a new company. This applies to procedures, software tools, time sheets -- everything. If you see opportunities for improvement based on how you used to do things, keep them to yourself unless asked -- or at least until you feel that you've been accepted as an employee of the new company. Once you've crossed that hurdle, you'll be in a position to suggest better ways of doing things.

- Bob

This story, "After your company is acquired, play the game to win," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.

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