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Anxiety and the Ax
When Changes Are Coming to the Office, Everyone Worries

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006

Andrew Card, Scott McClellan and Karl Rove. One right after the other. Quickly. Do you think the White House aides, interns and legions of speechwriters last week were biting their lips, wondering what was next? If they were next?

You can bet on it.

When an organization goes through a major shake-up, whether that is in the form of layoffs, top management turnover, buyouts (as in the case of The Post currently) or a company scandal, the reverberations can be felt from the big corner office to the tiniest cubicle. The first thing everyone is concerned about is his or her own job and the likelihood of keeping it. In the case of those who know they will remain when others leave, the concern is how much work will be funneled their way in the aftermath. The shake-ups create a lot of negative emotions and skeptical workers. Stress is common, and emotions run high.

But major organizational changes may also mean opportunities. Those same White House aides, interns and speechwriters probably were (and are) looking around to see how they can slide into better spots.

"Those who are left are thinking, 'What's expected of me to assume new roles and new goals?' And those leaving are thinking the same thing," said Kathy Blanton, national director of career management for Spherion Corp., a recruiting firm. "Some people accept it with much enthusiasm because they are looking forward to their next step in life."

Amen to that. It can be exciting.

Sometimes it's the same kind of "exciting" as that hill you chug up before you plunge down a cliff.

"Most employees who are going to remain are anxious about their ability to adapt successfully," she said.

In 2003, M&T Bank Corp. acquired AllFirst Financial Inc., which had branches throughout Baltimore. It was not a minor change. About 800 people based in Maryland -- or 20 percent of the workforce -- lost their jobs.

After the deal was final early that year, the branches' signs were changed in the middle of the night, and soon M&T had its name on Ravens Stadium.

Talk about a corporate shift.

But for many, this life-changing move was a chance to move into a better position.

Atwood Collins III, president of the Mid-Atlantic division of M&T Bank, spent 14- to 16-hour days immediately after the merger was announced the previous September, interviewing AllFirst's employees. He wanted to know what they liked about their organization, what they thought needed to be changed. He wanted them to essentially sell themselves and give him a reason to keep them on or put them in different positions.

"It gave people a chance to talk about themselves, and gave me a chance to look at the incredible reservoir of talent we had," he said. "It quickly shaped my thinking about who should be leaders of the organization."

He also wanted to let people know quickly which changes would be made. Not doing so could be detrimental to any company that is offering buyouts, firing executives, merging or otherwise transforming itself.

Here's one thing not to do: Blanton once worked with a firm where a manager got on the loudspeaker to call people, one by one, into his office. There, he fired them. Finished with one person, the boss would get back on the loudspeaker and call the next victim into his office. Employees cowered at their desks, waiting for their names to be called.

Try going back to work with confidence after surviving a day like that.

Employers that let employees know what might be coming win a little bit of trust and loyalty. But without details, those companies also lose productivity as workers play the guessing game: Who will go? Who will stay? Which job might be open for me?

Nancy McCarthy, president of executive coaching firm DC Rainmakers LLC, once worked at General Electric Co. during a round of layoffs. Employees knew a few months in advance that layoffs were coming. "Many hours were very unproductive as employees discussed the pending layoffs around the water cooler," she said.

No doubt.

The longer the questioning goes on, the greater the chance the company will lose out: McCarthy has witnessed many top employees defecting because they assumed they may be on the chopping block. They leave when the future is not so certain and when they don't get the reassurance they may need from management, she said.

In many cases, companies that forget about the people part of major changes are going to see their best workers walk.

Paul Dickerson has been through both big and small corporate mergers. His most recent one left employees feeling like the people didn't matter. And that, of course, was counterproductive for the merging companies. "The acquiring organization really paid no mind to the people side of it. They said, 'We're focusing on the assets we're requiring,' " said Dickerson, now executive director of implementation services at Learn.com Inc., an e-learning software company. "So any of the motivation that people had to get business done became kind of an 'every man for themselves' type of mentality."

Dickerson was one of the "lucky" few. He received a letter offering him a job at the organization taking over. First, he would have to quit his current job. He wasn't thrilled. So he looked outside the company for a new opportunity. After feeling that he was getting an ego beating at his own firm, his confidence began to grow again as he interviewed outside. Soon, he had five companies on the verge of offering him a job. Once he knew he had options, some of the stress melted away.

Looking around, Dickerson found that there were three types of attitudes during this last merger. Some people were "downright angry." Others worked hard at their jobs during the upheaval to prove their worth, hoping to be hired into the new company. And some acknowledged what might happen and, like Dickerson, put their energy into finding a new situation.

The worst off, he felt, were those who plodded along with eyes wide shut. They ignored the major issues happening around them because they didn't want to worry. But many of them probably didn't end up where they might have wanted, had they looked for something.

"What I've found is, it's not change that makes people worry. It's the uncertainty."

Join Amy on Tuesday from 11 to noon to discuss your life at work at washingtonpost.com. You can e-mail her with your column ideas atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

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