How HR should handle a merger

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Mergers can have a serious impact on staff morale but, believe it or not, that doesn’t always have to be negative – Island Savings recently received an improved employee rating despite being in the midst of major changes. Here, HR manager Ilka Bene explains exactly how that was possible.

“Because Island Savings is owned by its members, change has to be approved with a 2/3 majority of our members,” explains Bene. “In order to have that we really had to make sure our employees understood and were supportive of this.”

However, the merger with First West Credit Union would make Island Savings the smaller partner, explains Bene, so employees could easily have been concerned about possible repercussions.

Despite this, the company received overwhelming support and in an anonymous survey, 91 per cent of Island Savings’ employees either strongly agreed or very strongly agreed with the statement; “senior leaders are taking action to position our organization for long-term success.”

“It was overwhelming how positive and supportive they were of the direction that was provided by our senior leadership,” said Bene.

“It’s amazing because I would have thought this year would have been a challenging year,” she admitted – but the company actually jumped 25 places on Aon Hewitt’s list of best employers.

“I think that a very large part of the success of our merger, in terms of HR, was that we have been very transparent and straight-forward in our methods of communication,” she said.

“Our senior leadership, our execs and First West Credit Union’s execs, had a lot of face to face conversations with employees in small to medium group but also one on one,” revealed Bene. “They were very transparent. If I had a question I could either post it to our intranet or could email one of our leaders directly and there would be an answer forthcoming.”

“We really galvanized in support of our senior leadership and the direction they set for us. We had a common purpose a very strong and identifiable common purpose,” said Bene. “We were mobilized and we were all rowing in the same direction and having a good time doing it.”

But just because Island Savings is now officially part of the West Credit Union family, that doesn’t mean efforts to ease the transition have stopped.

“We have to make sure that we thoroughly configure our organizational structure,” says Bene, “and we need to align compensation, benefits, procedures and other core policies that affect the company.”

“We need to get to know one another’s communication style, decision making style, organization of work and all of the smaller things too – like what do we celebrate and how do we celebrate – you can’t get to know those things until you’re part of the organization,” says Bene.

Luckily, Island Savings has been able to retain its own brand so not everything has to be identically aligned, says Bene.

“Sometimes even the most trivial things – like what you do on a snow day – those kinds of things matter and they differ between companies,” she says. “But because we’re retaining our brand and our leadership, we can retain a unique culture to a certain extent. Those things don’t need to be standardized.”

“We still have an excellent opportunity to make changes but we can also keep our cultural identity,” says Bene.

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