Jane Genova
Jane Genova

There is nothing new about top executives losing their jobs during a corporate merger or restructuring. What is new is that now this is happening more frequently.

Executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles documents that global turnover of CEOs has tripled from 3.4 percent in 2001 to 9.3 percent. Another change driver is the increase in the number and size of global mergers and acquisitions. So far in 2018, reports Bloomberg, there have been 17 megadeals, each worth more than $10 billion.

Sometimes those kinds of upheavals are merely rumors in the business media and the internal grapevine. They may never happen. But when they do, the process can be long and drawn up. There is sustained uncertainty for employees, with no absolute right answers. Meanwhile, jobs along with key benefits such as employer-paid medical insurance, power, and status could be at stake.

There are three musts of personal branding during the crisis.

Develop a neutral persona. The situation is in flux. The merger might not go through. The direct supervisor. who is rumored to be on the chopping block. may be “saved.” That means employees have to hedge their bets. That entails being respectful and helpful to both the current regime and those new power figures might already be roaming the corridors. 

The elevator speech is “What can I do for you?” And that is that. 

It is career suicide to be pulled into sharing any information or gossip about what could be going down. As the old adage hammers: Everything said can and will be held against the employee.

Even if there is a purge, it is wise to maintain an attitude of service toward those terminated. They could be the source of the next job for employees who wind up also being cut from the team.

Signal confidence and optimism. Organizations and whole industries operate like systems. A change in one part affects everything else. Therefore, even the possibility of a shift will impact everything and everyone in the loop. That is, the whole game is in play. Vendors, including executive search consultants, are among those who could lose or gain from developments. Therefore, employees in the center of the storm have to insulate themselves from being caught in others’ emotional and professional fallout. 

The message delivered to all by employees is: The situation is evolving. We have to wait and see. The developments could be positive for many.  I have faith we will all land on our feet.

Be empathetic. Tone, of course, is a key aspect of PR. Given the seriousness of the situation, the only appropriate one is comprehensive compassion, even for one’s enemies. Superiors, peers, and subordinates could emotionally crumble. Be totally present, listening. The wrong tone would be gallows humor, joy at others’ suffering, and downright hatefulness.

Unfortunately, employees cannot see into the future. They have to make important decisions based on the incomplete information they have. Years later, those choices might seem wise or errors in judgment. But choices have to be made in the present. Here are two realities. 

Every situation is unique. For example, insiders might assume X is a goner because of guilt by association. She had been close to the boss, who has already been fired. However, X’s skills might be needed by the new regime for at least two years. Therefore, X is in the catbird seat of having a choice: searching for a job now or adopting a wait and see attitude. She could prove herself an asset and be retained long term. Even if she is not, she will probably be able to negotiate, through retaining her own lawyer, a nice severance package. Meanwhile, she should review with a lawyer the employment contract she had already signed. There might be the need for a new one.

Play cards close to the vest. Despite the transparency meme, business is conducted mostly as a stealth process. Opportunities and losses in the current organization and a job search conducted outside it involve plenty of data, which should be kept confidential. Employees who are open, for instance, about being treated abusively by the new regime can inflict damage to their personal brand. That would be a classic case of blame the victim.

Given the volatility of a global economy disrupted by politics and digital technology, employees have to anticipate change at the top. It is in their self-interest to analyze how their colleagues in other companies are navigating that uncertainty. The new usual is getting email that a member of the C-suite has left to pursue other interests or to read in the media that Company ABC wants to merge with their company.

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Jane Genova is a communications strategist/content-provider (https://janegenova.com) and a career coach for the over-50  (https://over-50.typepad.com). She can be reached at janegenova374@gmail.com.