Career advice for employees of an institution that’s been acquired (opinion)

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The recent spate of college closings, mergers and acquisitions is only likely to increase as a result of the financial pressures related to the pandemic. It’s a time fraught with anxieties and uncertainty. Here are some suggestions for what to do when you find yourself as an employee on the wrong end of an acquisition.

As with most scenarios, the most important thing is not to panic. It’s possible that the acquisition has come as a complete surprise to you. That is not a bad sign. You were not told sooner for many legitimate legal, economic or even political reasons. It’s not a matter of transparency or leadership. It also has no bearing on how essential you are to the future of the institution, or your likelihood of staying on. It’s possible that many important people at your institution might not have known. It’s also possible that the people involved in the acquisition will be the first to leave or be let go.

This sale occurred for a reason. Being acquired is better than being closed, which might very well have happened down the road. Another institution thinks highly enough of your programs, your personnel and your property to invest in you. That’s a good thing.

Your next step should be to reach out to the person who would be your supervisor at the acquiring institution to introduce yourself and let them know that you are available to help however you can to ease the transition. If you are a faculty member, reach out to the chair of your new department. If you are the assistant registrar, check in with the registrar.

Reaching out to someone in your equivalent position might not be much help, unless you yourself lead an office or division. You might want to also include your cellphone number to ease communications for people who prefer to call or text. The individuals you want to hear from won’t have you among their global contact lists, and you want to be as accessible as possible.

It’s possible that someone will reach out to you, but you shouldn’t wait for that. The people in the acquiring institution will probably have the organizational structure, but that says little about the day-to-day operations, and it’s easy to overlook someone. An acquisition or merger is a difficult and delicate process that will involve large teams of people across divisions, mostly from the acquiring institution. Whenever possible, you will want to be in on those meetings.

That said, you should continue to be a loyal employee and respect the current order of things at your current institution. No one will look favorably on someone too eager to jump ship. But also know that your supervisor or colleagues are not in a position to guarantee a future with the new institution, even if you have known them to be reliable sources of information. For all intents and purposes, you have been put on notice until the acquiring institution offers you a guaranteed contract of employment. Depending on the terms of the acquisition, that might very well involve interviewing for your current position or one similar to it.

To that end, you should treat every interaction, with everyone from the president to a security guard, as a job interview. Your aim should be to make yourself indispensable for your skills, insight and any information you might have. You will need to be candid about programs, processes and people and let your new employers find you to be someone who is competent and trustworthy. The administration, faculty and especially the staff of the acquiring institution have just been assigned a massive project, and they will be ever thankful to anyone who can make their lives easier.

Affirming Your Commitment

Until you are guaranteed employment, you should also begin looking for another job, even if you are tenured or senior. No one at your institution may tell you that, but it’s true — and I’m sorry. Acquisitions and mergers are long processes, which can take a year or longer to iron out; you would not want to waste that time. You could very well end up staying on, but you can’t know for sure. And if you are, in fact, offered a position, having options might make negotiations more favorable to you.

You should also use this opportunity to affirm your commitment to other organizations beyond your institution — for example, professional organizations, editorial boards or grant-making agencies. You will want to reassure them that you will keep them apprised of any changes that need to take place. Maintaining such relationships will make you more valuable to the acquiring institution. Those networks might also help you find another position, should it come to that.

The merger or acquisition will also very likely receive a good bit of coverage in the media, especially in the local press. Administrators and staff members on both sides will say all the right things about the opportunity the deal provides and how everyone is committed to the students and to the community. Journalists might not know any better, so that is what they will write. Ignore all of it. It will be reassuring, as all good public relations should be, but it’s largely irrelevant to you and your future.

Finally, and this may be the most important bit of advice: take care of the students. They will almost certainly be shocked by what has happened and have serious questions about their degrees and their path forward. And since finances are likely to be delicate, having a large number of students depart can adversely affect the financial implications of the deal, leading to more serious efforts to find redundancies and cut costs. But no acquisition or merger would ever be approved unless plans were in place to transfer programs and support students. Use your interactions with students to let them know that their course of study will be minimally interrupted, if at all.

In short, a merger or acquisition is a time when you should become more dedicated to your job. After all, it can be an opportunity for you to become part of what is probably a stronger and more stable institution.



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