Mergers: an opportunity for better inclusion

Angela Peacock argues that mergers provide a golden opportunity for L&D professionals to develop an inclusive culture 

“Inclusion right now? – we are only two weeks post-merger. We need to wait for things to calm down.” This statement is heard all too often – yet the reality is that there may never be a better time to ensure the new culture that a merger brings carries with it a thread of inclusion. Otherwise, although things may seem calm on the surface, the toxicity of hidden biases and assumptions will be sowing the seeds of issues for many years ahead.

Training professionals have a key role to play when it comes to handling the challenges and opportunities of creating a post-merger inclusive culture to get the ‘best of both worlds’.

It’s no secret that mergers and acquisitions (M&As) put a strain on any organisation and their employees, who report feelings ranging from ambivalence to outright fear. In the middle of such complex changes, diversity and inclusion (D&I) often couldn’t be further from everyone’s minds.

Taking the time to make implicit aspects of your workplace explicit can save issues down the line

When assessing what makes a successful M&A, various studies have reported effective onboarding, alongside clear guidance on attitudes, values and behaviours, as key components, together with the usual suspects like price and due diligence. With culture and talent integration such important elements of M&As, it is an important time to invest in your own D&I interventions.

Do your due diligence
During times of change, you can reset and re-evaluate your own organisation as well as those with which you are merging. Practising some due diligence on both sides can make for a smoother process. Re-evaluating and reassessing your inclusion programmes alongside those of any new partner can help pave the way for future integration. Understanding the culture, processes and training in place when it comes to D&I will give you a clearer picture of the road ahead and help identify conflicts and similarities of culture and language as you move forward.

Cultural integration begins at onboarding – this initial touchpoint is an important place to lay out explicit expectations about the behaviours and values of your organisation. Taking the time to make implicit aspects of your workplace explicit can save issues down the line. This provides the perfect opportunity to look at where these implicit rules might not be inclusive and change them. Think about organisational philosophies, communication styles, valued traits and beyond.

Re-evaluate talent
One of the most pressing issues during M&As is the need to retain key talent in uncertain times. The replacement and reduction strategies that often come with M&As must keep one eye on diversity. You can’t control the demographics and values of companies you acquire, but you can ensure that your senior teams, hiring managers and those involved in any reduction strategies have the tools they need to mitigate and reduce bias in these decisions. In many senior teams, one wrong step can reduce pay equity, gender balance and more. Never have these skills and evaluations been more vital, with eyes on every decision after a merger. Evidencing a fair and inclusive process builds trust in the organisation to make equitable decisions and retain high performers.

Cultural competency
When it comes to M&As, many organisations will be adding in a whole new culture, region, or language to their work. D&I plays a vital role in ensuring that colleagues have the skills to thrive with people from other countries. You may need to think more globally about what tools are needed to support employees and leaders alike. Whether it’s psychological safety training to ensure risks are avoided – or greater support on managing biases when new regions come into play – this is a vital space to grow your tools and resources.

Celebrate the differences
It’s inevitable that, when organisations come together, they are constantly judging each other’s competence at both an organisational and individual level based on the ‘brand’ of the legacy organisations. One party might assume that everyone in the legacy organisation is technically excellent – the other might see their new peers as ‘fly-by-night’ consultants. It’s often easy to overlook real talent and be distracted by the myths that come with the legacy organisation – how their people dress, walk and talk, for example.

In these situations, it’s important to respect and celebrate the past – after all, the businesses have been brought together to deliver excellence from both parties. You need to ensure you do not allow employees to be hijacked by assumptions and bias during these processes. One practical way of addressing this is to encourage everyone to set themselves some rules. Before reacting with ‘this is how we used to do it’ or saying ‘I’m legacy X…’ encourage people to stop and ask themselves what the reality and payback of those statements really are.

Don’t forget the clients
The client bias about the acquiring organisation is easy to overlook as you focus on the practical delivery of bringing the businesses together. The clients may worry whether the new organisation will continue to provide the prices and services in the same manner they have enjoyed – or whether things will deteriorate as employees leave or are distracted by the merger itself.

In spite of the benefits that merging organisations seek to initiate, client loss is still a possibility that needs to be addressed. The bias that your clients may carry about an acquiring or merging partner can affect how they see the next tender, approach, or deal. If there has been no attempt at creating an inclusive environment for your teams, then they may still be presenting their own legacy, perhaps making oblique references that they are not enthralled or in full support of the merger. This can then play to the client assumptions and ultimately cost you the business.

Best of both worlds?
Deciding what parts of the culture make the most people ‘happy’ and declaring it via ‘mission statements’ and ‘culture relaunches’ has to this point been the order of the day post-merger for many organisations. This approach may have been, at best, ineffectual in the past. Today it is strategic suicide. 
In the 21st century – with the emphasis on flexibility, a global approach and technological capability coupled with constant demands for new products, new markets, new routes to market and new clients with their own new and changing needs – our cultures must be the drivers of our new post-merger strategies. It is hard to imagine a scenario where inclusion would not be a critical piece of any ‘brave new world.’

Waiting for things to ‘bed down’ may be missing strategic advantage. Simple messages and workshops around inclusion and unconscious bias can drive away unrealistic assumptions around legacy organisations. Programmes of more depth may also ensure more robust decisions around talent selection, post-merger appointments and an assurance that things are done in a more transparent way. Done correctly, post-merger inclusion can give you the best of both worlds.

Angela Peacock is global director of diversity and inclusion at training consultancy PDT Global, part of Affirmity

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