Culture Shock! How to Survive a Merger

Dear Bear Stearns employee: You may want to read this.

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Despite their popularity with executives, corporate mergers are often accused of yielding little but a high failure rate. One common problem: Employees are caught in a collision of corporate cultures. Here are some ways to survive a merger and keep moving forward in your career:

Expect that things will change. You may end up with a new boss, new coworkers, an office in a different location, new rules and regulations, a new human resources department, different pay scales and benefits, and even an unfamiliar software system, says Jim Stern, vice president of Corporate Management Developers, which specializes in post-merger consulting.

Prepare for the expected. If the health insurance plan is changing, be ready to make changes as well, particularly if you or someone in your family is seeing a doctor who won't be included under the new plan, says David Bowman, chairman of TTG Consultants, a human-resources consulting firm. Likewise, if your compensation plan will be different, figure out if your income will drop and plan to change your spending accordingly, Bowman says.

Investigate the differences. Some people lay low and survey the landscape. Others are quick to jump in and ask lots of questions, says Jacalyn Sherriton, president of Corporate Management Developers. Just make sure you're learning the new system.

Some acquiring companies assign "buddies" to help employees of the acquired companies assimilate. They might offer advice on how to act or even what to wear, Stern says. Employees can also scout out a mentor on their own.

When it comes to learning your boss's leadership style or discovering your new colleagues, Bowman says that it's best, in the beginning, to sit back and play the observer.

Know your role. You have to know your boss's expectations to do your job well. If you have a new supervisor, ask to sit down with him or her and find out exactly what your responsibilities will be, Bowman says.

Be prepared to conform. It's tough, but there's no avoiding it: Employees in companies that are acquired need to be flexible. "We're relatively confident that no two organizations have the same values," Stern says.

Be open-minded. A merger or takeover isn't necessarily a bad thing, Bowman says: "There may be enormous opportunities opening in a new arena." He advises keeping an open mind and a positive attitude. Remember, too, that selling yourself and your ideas is the way to get ahead, Bowman adds. So find out who needs to hear your ideas and determine the best way to get them in front of that person.