Leading an organization through a merger or acquisition can feel like spinning plates before a live studio audience. Trying to keep everything in motion, you’re never able to turn away from any one priority, even for a moment. It probably feels like there are always too many plates. And gosh, it’s hot under those lights. To be sure, learning and development (L&D) and human resources leaders have a lot on their plates when two organizations come together.
It’s no wonder, then, that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) don’t always make it to the top of the priorities list during mergers and acquisitions (M&As). What smart leaders realize, though, is that M&As are the ideal time to make sure the newly formed organization is built around a culture of inclusion—and that this inclusive culture lays the groundwork for real and measurable success.
Not only does proper DE&I work set you up for success, but it can also fend off the negative effects of turmoil, uncertainty, and unconscious bias that would otherwise lead to trouble in the future. As an L&D professional, you play a critical role in ensuring that the post-merger organization rises from an equitable foundation.
You can start by thoroughly assessing your current programs, including overlaps and gaps, with your counterparts in the new partner organization. Once you understand the distinctions, you can align on point of view and messaging, then begin planning for optimal integration.
Onboarding: Everyone’s a New Employee
That integration should launch with intentional onboarding. This introduction to the new (combined) organization is an essential setting for you to share, in detail, the values of your organization and clear expectations for employee behavior. When all employees, regardless of tenure or original organization, understand that those values and behaviors include the respect for and pursuit of equity and inclusion, you’re well on your way.
As you develop your onboarding program, don’t assume that implicit norms will be universally understood; take the time to ask whether historic unspoken rules might work against inclusion and act to formalize appropriate guidelines. Consider everything: leadership philosophies, communication and recruiting channels, and traditionally rewarded employee traits.
Retention: Turn Threats into Opportunities
During M&As—when the stakes are high—you’ll naturally be focused on retaining top talent. Replacement and reduction actions are to be expected, but you should seize the opportunity here to operate with an emphasis on equity and a preference for diversity. You can’t predetermine the demographics or corporate culture of your partner organization, but you can (and must) ensure that your leaders, recruiters, hiring managers, and organizational design practitioners are trained and equipped to actively mitigate bias in all staffing decisions.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Is this really that important? I have a lot of other priorities to think about.” Consider this: Unintended missteps from a few well-placed employees with situational authority could negatively affect your organization’s racial wage gap or gender balance, at a time when everyone from employees to stakeholders (and maybe regulators, shareholders, industry watchers, the media, potential candidates, etc.) is paying close attention. The ability to publish a transparent and inclusive set of policies and demonstrate its real-world implementation builds trust in your organization, which is a significant boost for efforts to keep your most effective people and emerge with a culture of high performance.
Adaptation: More Than Just Logistics
Many organizations going through the M&A process are folding new regions, languages, or cultures into their ways of working. You may need a more global perspective than before when it comes to supporting employees, leaders, and workflows across multiple countries. Learning journeys for team members should include training on unconscious bias, microaggressions, and psychological safety. This investment avoids risk in the short term and pays off handsomely in the long term, as organizations that systematize inclusion achieve higher rates of engagement, productivity, and innovation.
Whenever two organizations become one, people will virtually always bring with them a prejudice—about both legacy organizations and the individuals within. For example, based on a few interactions or even branding materials, employees from Company A could assume that those from Company B have loads of technical expertise but lack business acumen. While this tendency is normal, it’s counterproductive and can prevent decision makers from spotting top performers and high-potential talent.
By all means, celebrate past successes and rich legacies—after all, everyone’s coming together to leverage the best aspects of both organizations. But don’t let preexisting affinities and bias skew important decisions at such a critical time. If you’re looking for red flags, take note when a sentence begins with “This is the way we’ve always done it” or “I’m from Company A so I think we should …”
Harmony: Don’t Forget the Customer
Most professionals at the forefront of M&As don’t need a reminder to look after existing clients. But beyond the rewritten contracts and new email addresses, customers will be anxious to learn exactly how the newly minted organization will deliver as a unified team.
Without an inclusive culture and shared sense of belonging, your customer-facing employees may not be presenting as wholehearted supporters of the merger—and that can set off alarm bells that jeopardize referrals and repeat business.
Culture: Handle with Care
Freshly integrated organizations often default to basing their culture on what feels popular with a plurality of senior leaders and roll it out to employees with a new mission statement or an internal communications campaign. This has always been a questionable approach, but it’s an utter strategic nightmare in the modern marketplace.
Today’s workforce and consumers want to know what your organization stands for. They expect a global mindset, transparency, flexibility, and a technocentric ability to deliver meaningful solutions. Employees, customers, and other stakeholders make investment decisions based on their level of connection with your brand, and that usually comes down to their perception of your organization’s culture.
So this isn’t something that can wait to be sorted after the dust settles; delay can be costly. Fortunately, in many cases all it takes are some learning opportunities and relatively simple messaging to shake off the lingering biases from previous mindsets. More in-depth learning programs can lock in a more equitable and transparent system for personnel decisions.
When you place a thoughtful, inclusive, well-supported culture at the heart of your post-M&A strategy, you’re doing more than feel-good box ticking. You’re positioning your organization for maximum strategic advantage built on tangible positive business outcomes. It just happens to feel good, too.