Merging with a Smile

After 30 years as an engineer, Phil Clemas thought his job was secure. He was wrong. And even worse, he was redundant. When the utility company he worked for was privatised, Clemas lost his job and found himself forced into an unwanted midlife career change. But instead of ruining Clemas's life, career change became his new career. Now an outplacement specialist, Clemas spends his days helping other redundant employees find new jobs.

Clemas is in no danger of being out of work again anytime soon. Forget the 'flu--the world's multinationals are in the midst of an outbreak of mergeritis. Pharmaceutical companies have felt the urge to merge for years, but now it seems that other sectors, the oil industry and Internet service providers to name but two, have caught the bug.

And whether it comes out of the blue or has been expected for some time, a merger or takeover means one thing for employees--a lot of uncertainty. So, with science-based companies merging as regularly as most people change their socks, what can you expect if your company gets close to another? And if they do merge, how can you minimise the stress and maximise your chances of survival?

The first rule is to be patient. Some jobs will go and others will change, that's inevitable, but there is no guarantee that your job will be one of them. So fight the urge to flee and sit tight until things begin to settle down. And remember, if you jump ship at the first sign of trouble you could miss out on a tidy redundancy package.

The second rule is to be flexible. Many companies will try to retain their employees, even if it means moving them into a different job. This is particularly true for young scientists who have not yet developed industry-wide reputations. When the pharmaceutical company he worked for merged with another company, David* switched from drug discovery to clinical trials. "Coming straight out of the lab you're basically unemployable, unless you happen to be in a field where they're looking for people," he says. "So a career change is the order of the day."

On the other hand, the traditional rule of "last in, first out" doesn't always apply in science-based industry. Although there were three applicants chasing every job at David's company, "people were chosen on the basis of their ability to do the job, rather than length of service." At BP Amoco, another company formed in a recent merger, Sarah* says, "new graduates who had been with the company less than 2 years were excluded from redundancy and were told quite early that their jobs were secure," the rationale being that the company did not want to lose staff in whom it had recently made a big recruiting and training investment.

But even patient, flexible employees sometimes get the axe. So what do you do if it happens to you? If the worst does happen, try to take advantage of everything your company offers. Industry tends to give its former employees lots of support, in the form of generous redundancy packages, relocation allowances, and the assistance of professional job finders. And at BP Amoco, employees whose positions were axed were even given a grace period in which to find an alternative job.

That's where Clemas comes in. "Outplacement is about helping people to make the transition. Redundancy often comes as a shock, and everyone reacts in different ways," he explains. Clemas works one on one to help people who may have been with one company for a long time understand the job market and analyse their skills. He also tries to teach them the realities of the new job market. As Sarah says, "Nowhere has job security anymore, think about personal security."

Outplacement specialists have the advantage of being independent of the merging companies' personnel departments: "We're not involved in decisions about who stays and who goes." In fact many, like Clemas, are able to empathise with their clients precisely because they have been through a career transition themselves.

And Clemas remains upbeat about the opportunities for those facing redundancy. "There are jobs out there," he insists. "And we try to get people into a positive state of mind and ask, 'Can we turn this into a success story?' "

* Sarah and David are not their real names. But they both survived a merger.

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