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Merger? Five ways to survive.

By E. Jeanne HarnoisContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2005

George Madi had survived several mergers by the time he reached John Hancock Financial Services in Boston. The financial analyst knew the merger game. So by the time his company announced a merger with Manulife Financial in 2003, he was ready with a plan of his own:

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He wanted to be let go.

"I went to my manager and asked her straightforward[ly] to be laid off," he writes in an e-mail. The reason? "I had plans to be married in Lebanon."

Despite his supervisor's support, it took a little over a year before he and his colleagues in the budget and cost-accounting department found out who would be collecting severance packages.

With severance money in hand, Mr. Madi finally arrived in his native Lebanon a week before Valentine's Day. And though he is no longer with his original girlfriend, that hasn't deterred him from his goals to marry and find a job there.

While Madi's situation is unique, workforce experts say it illustrates the first step in surviving a corporate merger or takeover: Know your destination.

As the economy picks up and a new wave of mergers and acquisitions begins to hit American corporations, traditional models of advancement are disappearing. So employees have to do a better job of shaping their careers. Fortunately, there are several steps workers can take to survive - or even thrive - during corporate change, these experts say. The trick is to focus on where you are and where you want to go.

It isn't easy. Mergers and acquisitions were the fourth leading cause of layoffs last year, accounting for nearly 66,000 job cuts, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. They sap office morale so often, at least initially, that researchers have even coined a term for the effect: "merger- emotions syndrome." Managers often take the hardest hit. A 1998 study found that 3 of 5 top managers in acquired corporations had left within five years - far higher than normal turnover.

So, should you worry? Here are five ways to turn the downside of mergers into a positive experience:

1. Get your bearings.

"The first question is to look at where you are in your career and what you want for yourself," says Roger Herman, head of his own workplace consulting firm in Greensboro, N.C. Don't just look at career objectives, but also consider personal factors, he adds. A working spouse, school-age children, or elderly parents may preclude an employee from relocating, for example.

Be honest and objective when you evaluate your position, advises Rick Maurer, a consultant on change and management issues in Arlington, Va. "Are you a critical player? Are you sitting in a department with a lot of redundancy?" Another important consideration is to look at which side of the merger you're on. Are you working for the company being bought or the one doing the buying? If you're on the winning team, odds are you will be in a better bargaining position, he adds.

2. Ask what you're willing to risk.