It may seem elementary to advise those of you involved in merger discussions to not forget to communicate with the employees involved. However, we often place so much attention on selling the members and making sure they own the initiative that we neglect the very folks who could derail a successful union: the staff.
We shouldn’t. Employees are closest to the day-to-day operation of any organization. That means they are most likely to first learn unofficially that merger or acquisition talks are underway.
In a way, employees have the most at stake in a merger. Members can take their business elsewhere if they don’t like your “Explanation of Benefits.” In his or her mind, an employee is without a vote and stuck with the results.
If they don’t see a benefit, they may decide to leave. This can cause a huge loss of talent and experience. Even before that, disgruntled employees may contribute to sinking a deal. Cooperative employees have frequent contact with members, which means they have the potential to cast a proposed merger in a negative light, unless convinced otherwise.
Moreover, in a rural cooperative, the employee is most likely a neighbor of the member. He or she probably attends the same church, shops in the same local stores and attends the same school and sporting events. The likelihood that a member’s attitude towards a proposed merger may be influenced by an employee’s attitude is extremely high.
Convince employees of the benefits
At the very least, assure employees that little will change, but only if that is true. If it is not, you will face bigger problems when you try to implement the merger.
The heads of two cooperatives that recently merged made the point that their geographies did not overlap. Therefore, there would be no reduction of staff—at least in the foreseeable future. That is a good start. This at least allayed the fears of employees that they may be fired immediately because of duplication.
But there is room to cultivate even greater employee allegiance to a proposed merger. A client of mine makes the point, with every expansion, that “this growth will create future opportunities for current employees.” Again, you only want to state that if it is true. But if it is, it assures both staffs that the proposed union will benefit them rather than harm them.
You can go even further by admitting that, even in the most perfect union, there will be cultural and policy differences that must be worked out. Then express the commitment of the boards and management to working out these differences.
Make employees your unofficial voice
Back to the earlier point that employees have the most day-to-day contact with members, why not utilize that fact to your advantage? Keep the employees well informed. Give them talking points on issues you know the members will ask about. That way, when members encounter a driver delivering a load of feed or an employee dumping grain at the elevator, they are more likely to get the straight story instead of a fearfully twisted version of the proposed union.
Remember: Your employees probably have the most to lose or gain in the short run from a proposed merger or acquisition. Make sure they own the initiative and can speak intelligently and positively about the prospect. The members, their friends and next door neighbors are more likely to listen to them than the CEO or board president.
Senior journalist Dave Aeilts has been helping VistaComm clients with merger and acquisition communications for more than two decades. If your organization needs help communicating change, or even starting a communication program, put our expertise to work for you.