How to effectively onboard employees after an acquisition

Bringing on new employees in an acquisition requires special planning and extra empathy, experts say.
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4 min read

2021 was a record-breaking year for mergers and acquisitions, with over 60,000 deals struck globally, Reuters reports. In almost every M&A deal, the HR department plays an important role in ensuring a successful transition, which, for the employees, begins with onboarding. And when it comes to acquisitions, seasoned HR leaders say that onboarding employees presents its own unique challenges.

When moving through an acquisition, HR leaders we interviewed said it’s important to first remember that employees aren’t choosing to join a new company, so these new team members deserve extra care. Onboarding during an acquisition must be done with more empathy, patience, and personalization than traditional onboarding, according to these HR professionals, who have gone through the acquisition process several times.

First off, using “acquiring” language when referring to employees can be off-putting, explained Nancy Hauge, chief people experience officer at business-automation software company Automation Anywhere, who’s helped with more than 30 mergers and acquisitions during her career. She told HR Brew that the language should focus more on “inviting” the new group to the company. “You have to be very conscious, very respectful of that individual,” Hauge said. “So that’s where lots of folks go wrong.”

Planning. Whether it’s a new hire or an employee joining through an acquisition, the onboarding process starts before the employee does. Tracy Tobin, chief people officer at Adswerve, a marketing firm in Denver, says that you must prepare across teams for acquired employees. “You’re trying to understand how everything is used, [as well as] the reliance on different HR technology,” Tobin said. “You have all of these processes and policies and vendors, and all of these things are how your business functions.”

Hauge says to look at the parts of the process you can automate so you can spend more time working on human interactions. Like traditional onboarding, tasks like payroll, benefits planning, and training can likely get done with technology.

Hauge said that in some situations she has been able to “offset 10% of my workload” through automation. “That’s the equivalent of four people just doing the administrative work full time,” she explained. “And that meant that we had a lot more individual one-on-one, face-to-face human engagement. And so we use that technology to make certain that we can put humans in front of all systems.”

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Tobin also says you need to figure out what will work best for each acquisition—before the new company’s employees start—and tailor your onboarding accordingly: “Are you going to send out emails? Are you going to have meet-and-greets and different things? Are you going to have any focus groups?”

Merging cultures. Some acquisitions allow the acquired companies to maintain a sense of autonomy. However, for smaller organizations, it’s important to find ways to mesh the cultures, so the acquired employees don’t feel like they’re giving up everything they care about, according to Hauge and Tobin.

Tobin said Adswerve was able to retain all employees for the first year after the company’s acquisition of Liquidbox, which had 23 workers based in South Africa. She said that it wasn’t a “light-switch” integration, but rather a slow transition that worked for her company by “trying to break out when they could expect certain things.” It took over two months, “because they still were learning and we communicated with them,” Tobin said, to layer the process and make it more manageable.

Easy does it. For many new employees, their entire team structures are changing, so Hauge believes it’s important for the onboarding process to ease them into the new way of work. Hauge said she also makes an effort to understand who each employee is as a person: “Who is their best friend in the workplace in their last role? And how do we help them establish relationships here? How do we make certain that they become sticky with good relationships among new peers? So we try to help them find friends.”

“The whole point of onboarding, when you’re doing an acquisition like this, is to say, ‘Look, there’s a spectacular future out there. We think it’s going to be even better if we’re together,’” Hauge added.—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.