As soon as Rouse Co. announced it was selling itself to a Chicago-based mall owner, Chad Houck, a principal of Columbia-based employment consultant the Search Group, , and his recruiters hit the phones, calling about 40 Rouse employees.

Initially, workers were reluctant to pursue outside jobs because "people really do like working at Rouse," Houck said. But then employees started worrying about layoffs.

So far, said Houck, his firm has placed three Rouse employees in new jobs.

The news in August that Rouse would be acquired by General Growth Properties Inc. for $7.2 billion in cash stunned many employees. The deal is expected to close later this year. General Growth has said it's too early to say how many of the 200 Rouse employees who work in this region will lose their jobs.

That made the calls from headhunters attractive, even to employees who liked working for Rouse, recruiters and employees said.

Chuck Sudina, president of Sudina Search Inc. in Timonium, said his firm is working with a "number of people at Rouse." Sudina specializes in accounting and information technology jobs that pay $50,000 to $100,000.

"The Rouse organization was surprised by the quality of people who were leaving and who were leaving quickly," Sudina said. "They tried to ebb that flow by offering retention bonuses."

In recent documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Rouse said it was offering cash bonuses to those employees it hopes -- at least temporarily -- to retain.. Rouse officials did not return calls seeking a comment. General Growth also declined to comment. Rouse stockholders are scheduled to meet Nov. 9 and vote on the deal.

In addition to the retention bonuses, Rouse has posted a Q&A on its Web site to try to reassure employees.

One of the questions: "I have not met with Jean Schlemmer . . . Does this mean I am not being considered for a position" at General Growth? Jean Schlemmer is the fourth-highest ranking General Growth executive and has been at Rouse headquarters in Columbia overseeing a "transition team" and talking to Rouse workers companywide.

Answer: "Jean Schlemmer will not be able to meet with every Rouse employee." General Growth is working as a transition team to meet with as many Rouse employees as possible, the document said, adding that "all employees are retained in their current position until otherwise notified."

Sudina said some Rouse employees have been told that General Growth may keep a regional accounting office in Columbia, reassuring some of Rouse's accountants. "That tied with the retention bonuses caused a number of Rouse people to pull themselves off the market," Sudina said. "There's not the same sense of urgency there was three weeks ago."

Some employees, however, said they moved forward with their job searches, despite the bonus offers and reassurances, because they feared that in the end there would be layoffs.

"I just didn't want to risk searching for a job at the same time as 100 other Rouse employees," said one employee who left Rouse recently and who only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.