MYTH: The best way to survive a corporate merger is to lay low - don't cause any problems or get in the way - and maybe you'll slip through the cracks undetected.
Fact: Probably the fastest way out of a job is the lay-low approach, career counselors say. Unfortunately, too many workers resort to a game of hide-and-seek when caught in a corporate matrimony.
''Merger survival really depends on that person taking control of that situation,'' says James Challenger of Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
''It's very important to buy into the new way of doing things,'' he says, to take initiative, to be public, to get involved in the change, and to let people know who you are.
Coping with a merger has undoubtedly become a growing pastime for many American workers.
Last year was a record year for mergers, with $866 billion in transactions. Those mergers accounted for more than 16 percent of all job cuts announced in 1995, according to Mr. Challenger. And he says merger casualties in '96 could be even higher.
One of the biggest mistakes people make, career counselors say, is to assume their job won't be cut. No job is guaranteed, Challenger says, even if you're situated in a profitable division.
Granted, those who work for the company doing the acquiring tend to have an advantage over those who work for the company being acquired. Still, that's no reason to be complacent.
Attitude is everything, says Linda, who asked that her last name not be used. For the past 17 years, she has worked in the volatile oil and gas industry and has been through several mergers and downsizings.
''It's tough, but you have to stay positive,'' she says. Management notices people with defeatist attitudes, she says, and they tend to be the first ones out. She also says you should consider taking a demotion or relocating.
The slightest hint of a merger is the time to act.
''There's a high sense from people that, 'Well, I'll wait until the dust settles to start marketing myself,' '' says Stephen Ford, president of Fitzgerald, Stevens & Ford Inc. in Boston, which helps firms manage the impact of mergers. ''If you wait until the dust settles, it may settle in a way that you're in the dust.''
First, evaluate the new corporate culture and how you fit in. In most mergers, the acquiring company's culture becomes the ''new culture,'' Mr. Ford says. ''Sometimes, trying to make a force-fit in a rapidly changing situation is not the best thing for you or your career,'' he adds. If you decide to stay, start looking for opportunities to market yourself inside the company.
Get busy finding out everything you can about the strategy of the new company. Attend all meetings, get to know the new players on ''the other side,'' and volunteer to do projects and assignments. Career counselors stress trying to get on one of the transition committees.
''In a high-change time, information is power,'' Ford says.
Network, network, network with your peers, your boss, and your boss's peers, says Terry Devlin, a career counselor with Career Management International in Houston. He stresses ''soft networking.'' ''It's more ally building and rapport building than blatant ... 'what can you do for me,' manipulating-type networking.''
Understand how people perceive you inside and outside the organization, adds Frank Mainero, managing director of outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison's Boston office.
Be well-prepared to present yourself to new management. (Don't rely on your supervisor to trumpet your cause, Challenger notes. Often the supervisor is the first to go.)
''If people are coming in to find out who should be laid off, you should be able to lay in front of them your qualifications,'' accomplishments, goals, and how you can contribute to the new company either in your current position or another one, says Carl Angel, senior vice president of outplacement firm Drake Beam Morin Inc.'s Boston office.
Another myth: The team from the acquiring company wants to know how the acquired company did things.
One of the worst mistakes is to assume that the acquiring firm wants to integrate any other methods with their own, Challenger says. Unless asked directly about the ways the acquired company did things, don't offer information or you will sound wedded to a company that no longer exists.
To those who think they won't succeed in keeping their job, Ford says, consider volunteering to leave early. You can ask for a ''sweetened'' severance package and beat everyone else in your office into the marketplace. Being out early, he says, is a big advantage.