How to Hire When You’re Being Acquired: Q&A with Rachel Jacobson
How should you handle recruiting when your company is being acquired? Talent leader Rachel Jacobson shares advice from her repeated acquisition experiences.
Rachel Jacobson (Courtesy: Blue Ant Media)
Rachel Jacobson is a tech industry talent leader experienced with guiding teams through business acquisitions and the integration processes that follow. She serves as vice president, global human resources at Blue Ant Media and previously led HR at several companies that experienced acquisitions: QuickPlay Media, Adenyo, and Virgin Mobile Canada. We spoke on the phone about talent acquisition during an acquisition and what it takes to make good hires in times of uncertainty and organizational change.
“Evaluate candidates for their ability to deal with ambiguity.”
Can you talk a little bit about your experience with acquisitions?
It’s a very common story with technology companies. My first experience with an acquisition and the project of integration was on the side of the acquired company. As I moved on to other companies, it came up frequently. Some of the acquisitions were teeny-tiny companies; I remember going down to the office of one acquired business: it was twelve people in a room with no phone lines. They were borrowing Wi-Fi from their neighbors. Most recently, the experience was with a global, multi-thousand person organization acquiring our medium-sized company of a few hundred people.
What’s it like for a talent team to experience acquisition?
It’s normal that there is a lot of uncertainty for employees. There isn’t enough information, and people crave more. To fill that vacuum, they jump to conclusions. Even experienced people will try to read the tea leaves. That makes it hard to keep your head screwed on straight. But frequently there are great opportunities coming out of the uncertainty. You just have to stay grounded long enough to recognize them.
How might you recognize opportunities in this type of situation?
The most important thing is, not so much recognizing the opportunity, but not making immediate assumptions about what might happen in the future.
In an acquisition, people will often either batten down the hatches or run for the hills – dust off their resume, and look to get out. But if you sit back and wait a bit, wait for the dust to settle, you might find yourself better off than before. In a recent acquisition, several people on my team moved into bigger roles working for the much larger organization that acquired our employer. It’s just about being patient, remaining calm, and avoiding a panic response.
How does acquisition affect talent acquisition?
The people on the frontline of talent acquisition, the recruiters and the hiring managers interacting with candidates, need to be informed of what is changing, what is staying the same, and what details remain unknown. It’s important for them to communicate that information to candidates because you have a responsibility to be as honest as you can be with potential hires, so they can make an informed, appropriate choice. But they are employees, too. They have the same uncertainty and questions other employees have. It’s super-critical to communicate frequently, check in, and answer questions because they will telegraph any uncertainty they feel to candidates.
Should you anticipate that hiring will take longer or present more challenges?
A bit. Part of it is being careful and making sure you’re making the right choices in a time of uncertainty. But – and this is a really key thing – you have to keep the organization running. Sometimes with acquisitions, due diligence and integration can take twelve months or longer. You need to make sure that when you’re through that process, the organization that was a desirable acquisition remains desirable. If you haven’t taken care of employees, if you haven’t taken care to refresh the talent pool, then you’ve lost some of that value. It’s important to keep things moving forward.
Particularly at the director-and-up level, it’s very hard to attract the right caliber of people if you’re not able to provide specifics on long-term incentives. If you truly don’t know what the compensation and benefits will look like, you should probably slow down hiring and consider bringing in contractors. If you suspect there will be areas of the business that will experience organizational changes, for example reporting to a different location, that’s definitely a spot where you should also think about contractors.
Should you be looking for particular traits in candidates for them to succeed during a time of change and transition?
Absolutely. Evaluate candidates for their ability to deal with ambiguity and their comfort level with uncertainty, because that’s inherent. It’s a plus to select candidates who have been in a situation like this before, but you’re not always going to find that.
What concerns do candidates have about joining a company going through an acquisition? How might recruiters address those concerns?
The first thing candidates are concerned with is job security. People often associate acquisitions with downsizing, even though that’s often not the case with technology companies, because tech acquisitions are typically driven by the talent. The answer to that concern is, we wouldn’t be hiring you if we didn’t think there was a long-term need. Again, though: if there is uncertainty stretching out past the next six months, contractors might be a better solution than permanent hires.
Next, candidates will want to know about culture change. Especially if the acquired company is known for its strong, distinctive culture. The candidate is going to say, “I thought I was coming to LinkedIn, but now it’s part of Microsoft. What does that mean for the company culture, and is that still attractive to me?” The way to address this concern is with honesty: be transparent about what you do know and what you don’t know. And share the selling points: “What we know today is that we’ll maintain separate offices and branding, but we’ll also get awesome new perks.” That sort of thing.
One upside to hiring new employees during an integration is that they won’t carry the baggage of knowing what the culture used to be like. They come in as a clean slate and will be less fussed about the natural changeover taking place.
“It’s super-critical to communicate frequently, check in, and answer questions.”
From a people perspective, what are common mistakes employers make when going through an acquisition?
Typically, a lot of time and effort is spent on the external messaging – what the press release will say, what’s going on the website, how customers will be informed – but not nearly the same amount of thought goes into the internal messaging to employees. Leaders will send an announcement email, and maybe host a town hall meeting, and that’s it. But by not communicating any more than that, you create the information vacuum that prompts employees to worry and make assumptions.
In an acquisition, leaders should give internal communication the same care and planning as external communication. In my most recent acquisition experience, we spent a lot of time checking in with people. We scheduled weekly calls with our directors to flow down important messages, answer questions, head off potential problems, and give them the tools they needed to talk to their employees. It worked well.
Is acquisition for the purpose of talent acquisition, or “acquihiring,” an effective approach?
In technology, you might be purchasing a company for the customers, or the revenue, or the patents, but frequently it’s also for the talent. All acquisitions involve stress for the people involved, but an acquisition for talent is one of the best-case scenarios. You can stand up in front of the employees and say, “There are no plans to disrupt your work. We want to keep everything running smoothly and you shouldn’t notice any difference.”
What one piece of advice would you offer to talent leaders at organizations going through an acquisition?
I’d repeat that overused meme, “Keep calm and carry on.” [laughs] Myself, I’ve had moments during acquisitions where I’ve had to remind myself not to go jumping off any ledges, to not make any assumptions. As a leader, you have a responsibility to the people working on your team, and to make sure business keeps moving forward.
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