The past year has seen construction swept by mergers and takeovers. If it happens to you, what are your rights – and how can you hold on to your job?
Mergers and acquisitions can be compared to an iceberg. The visible tip is the blitz of press and publicity at the time of the announcement. The invisible part is the uncertainty, upheaval and career chaos that are the consequences for the hundreds of employees in its path.

In the past 18 months, a series of construction mergers have left plenty of people who have witnessed the iceberg effect. The acquisition of housebuilders Beazer and Bryant by Persimmon and Taywood respectively was followed by the purchase of Alfred McAlpine Homes by Wimpey. Ex-Trafalgar House staff who flew a Norwegian flag under Kvaerner swapped it for Skanska's Swedish one, and Galliford merged with Try. Then there was a host of smaller deals as the big consultants snapped up niche businesses.

Where mergers are a glove-like strategic fit, with little overlap between business specialisms or geographical coverage, the unseen effects on individuals can be more positive than negative. They might include a wider range of promotion prospects within an enlarged company, favourable perks and benefits with the acquiring company or a new reporting structure that might treat your talents more favourably.

Robert Wallace, senior vice-president of Skanska Construction, says that ex-Kvaerner staff are finding their career prospects are widening, particularly on Skanska projects in the USA. "There are opportunities for people with an appetite for them," he says. "People tend to have trepidations at first, but they should remember that companies can always be strengthened by an injection of good people."

But, as mergers are often a boardroom response to overcapacity, a more typical scenario – as with Persimmon and Beazer, where 800 were sacked – is that the combined business will suffer from overcapacity and that redundancies will follow.

While in theory many employees might welcome a change of direction, most will not enjoy being forced to make a detour. Recruitment consultant Hays Montrose has seen a flood of job-seekers displaced by the industry's wave of mergers. According to senior manager Chris Cheetham, there is no set pattern to individuals' reactions. "Some are shattered, some bounce back quite quickly. Perhaps, a year later, people will say 'on reflection, it was a good thing'. But very few will say that at the time."

So, what's the best way of coping if your company has set course for a merger? The advice from careers advisers and industry professionals is that you have more control over the situation than you might think. Those in charge might be plotting the macro-strategy elsewhere, but you can still influence the merger's micro-level effects on your department and your career.

In the first place, there is often a lengthy period of limbo between the announcement that a business is being sold, and the deal being sealed. When BAe Systems' Project Management International was put up for sale in October 1999, it took a full year before a deal was concluded with Osprey Project Management, a subsidiary of QS Franklin + Andrews.

Keep your wits about you
"The atmosphere was unsettled; people were worried about their jobs and some decided to leave," says marketing assistant Avis Donaldson. But these months are a breathing space that should be used wisely. Siobhan Hamilton Phillips, a senior psychologist with consultant Career Psychology, advises trying to predict which areas of the new business will flourish and which will wither away. Clues can often be found in a close reading of press releases, or in directors' comments in interviews. For instance, Persimmon made clear from the outset that it saw no future in social housing, an unmissable signal to staff at Beazer social housing arm Beazer Partnerships to update their CVs.

When you have an idea of which direction the new business might take, consider grooming your CV to match. That might mean simply putting your experience in a slightly different light, or taking the initiative by signing up to extra training. As well as evening courses, you might consider crash-courses in your holidays or internet-based distance learning.

Once the deal has been concluded, you may find that your working life continues much as before, although with the complication of new bosses and a new reporting structure. On the other hand, if redundancies and reorganisation are on the cards, then it's time to play your winning hand. In either case, the experts agree that the first post-merger weeks are the ideal time for blatant self-promotion.

Sherridan Hughes, a consultant psychologist at consultant Career Analysts, says that the doctrine of honest hard work being rewarded simply does not apply in modern mergers. "It might be the case in an ideal world, but I think you need to stick your head above the parapet. Everyone else is too busy to notice someone working with their head down," she says. "A merger means massive changes. Someone needs to manage them – that person could be you."

Perhaps, a year later, people will say ‘on reflection, it was a good thing’. But few will say that at the time

Chris Cheetham, Hays Montrose

Fran Wilson, an adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, makes a similar point. "Volunteer for as many teams as possible, and try to make yourself visible for maximum impact." For instance, at Kvaerner, a small team of people was put together to negotiate on perks, benefits and other issues. Galliford Try set up a series of working groups to streamline the two companies' policies on issues such as procurement and recruitment.

But gimmicks are best avoided. Robert Wallace, senior vice-president of Skanska Construction, recalls that when Kvaerner acquired Trafalgar House in 1996, some keen swots started learning Norwegian.

The cool response from their Norwegian bosses was that they should stop wasting their time and start getting on with some useful work.

A responsible employer will try to ensure a smooth transition with regular update meetings to keep staff informed. QS Davis Langdon & Everest associate Emma Stephenson, personnel and training manager, has recently worked on the integration of specialist firms NBW Crosher and James and Schumann Smith into DL&E. Her advice, based on counselling transfer staff, is to "keep asking questions about how the merger will affect you. Different things worry different people, so don't feel your concerns are trivial even if your colleagues don't seem to share them".

If you're lucky, the end result will be a win–win situation for staff, as well as a more robust business for directors and shareholders. "There's definitely a lot more scope for gaining experience and promotion – Osprey and PMI have given each other footholds in the other's markets. There was a lot of upheaval, with everyone's workload reorganised to cover all the projects. But for me personally, it's worked out very well," says PMI Osprey's Donaldson.

But redundancies are often a by-product of mergers. In cases where the merger has left two individuals with the same job function, but only one job, the Employment Rights Act requires the company to interview both candidates. "It can be as gruelling as getting the job in the first place. They're not doing it to be nasty, but to get the best person filling the role," says the CIPD's Wilson.

If voluntary redundancy is on the agenda, the key is to ask yourself how well a move fits with your personal and family circumstances. Likewise, a relocation package can look attractive at certain stages in your career. "Ask yourself if you can you do with a breathing space in your life. Maybe a good redundancy package could help you set up as a consultant. But if you need stability in your life, don't apply," advises Wilson.

If redundancy is unavoidable, there is some comfort to be had in the words of Hays Montrose's Cheetham: "When redundancies happen through mergers and acquisitions, there is general acceptance that it's not a reflection on the individual's ability. In other situations, there can be a question mark over your CV."

Others use redundancy as an opportunity to train or set up in business, with the redundancy cheque as a means to pay for it. Outplacement consultant Ian Cooper recalls one engineer who retrained as a JCB driver, and a manager who became a court usher. Career Psychology's Hamilton Philips recalls a surveyor who "ended up setting up a business importing second-hand pianos.

It worked out very well for him."

What are your rights in a merger?

Post-merger, the rights of employees are protected by the Employment Rights Act (1986) and the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations. TUPE applies in most mergers, irrespective of the size of the deal: for example, when one partnership absorbs another; when two companies merge to form a third; or when a contract to supply services is transferred. The main exception is where one company buys another’s shares but does not actually run the new business. Where TUPE does apply, transferred staff will be given new employment contracts. The regulations state that these contracts should include terms, conditions, holiday entitlements and benefits packages equal to or better than their old ones. Although TUPE does not specifically cover issues such as job titles or future promotions, most employers claim they would honour any pre-existing commitments. After a year of operating independently, staff from QS Widnell are now being integrated into Currie & Brown’s three service companies. “Where there are changes in terms and conditions, they have been favourable,” stresses Ted Runciman, group human resources director. In fact, Widnell’s staff have found their working week has shortened from 37.5 hours to 36.25. If there are any drawbacks in their package, staff are entitled to compensation. However, TUPE rules do not extend to pensions, raising the possibility that staff used to a generous employers’ contribution could find themselves either short-changed or without any company pension at all. Under Widnell’s scheme, staff and employer each contributed 3.5% into a group personal pension, whereas Currie & Brown has a money purchase scheme funded at 3% from staff and employers. “We maintained the contributions of ex-Widnells staff at 3.5% so that there was no loss of benefit,” explains Runciman. “Now we’re trying to bring the two schemes closer together so that no-one will lose out.” If the merger results in job duplication and overstaffing, the owner cannot automatically retain its original staff and make the arrivals redundant. “The two groups of staff have to be compared through interviews and selection criteria”, says Kieron Hill, advice services manager at Peninsula Business Services. If the new employer fails to follow correct procedures, or uses the merger as a means of getting rid of an employee, anyone made redundant could bring an unfair dismissal claim at an employment tribunal and win up to £50,000. Where there are compulsory redundancies, the Employment Rights Act gives staff the right to consultation, to liaise with unions and to elect representatives for collective negotiations. If more than 100 staff are to lose their jobs, the employer must allow a 90-day consultation period, or 30 days if between 20 and 99 jobs are to go.

Top merger tips

1. If a merger is on the cards, look at where the growth areas and shortfalls will be, then consider preparing yourself for a position in one of the growth areas. 2. People who feel confident about their skills and abilities find it easier to make career shifts. If you lack confidence, try a confidence-building course – and see page 10. 3. If you are re-interviewed by the new employer, you have to be prepared to sell yourself over again and to say “look at me”. 4. If you’re considering a change of direction, you may want to seek professional advice. It’s best to do this before being confronted with the full impact of the merger. 5. If you’re unsure whether to pursue a career change, fact-finding is invaluable. Take any leave due to you and use it to explore other possibilities. 6. Your career is a priority, even among competing claims such as family and finances. So give it the attention it deserves and draw up an action plan. 7. If you have six months leading up to the merger, use each of them to achieve a step in your plan. In the first month, you might rewrite your CV and post it on internet recruitment sites. In the second month, approach agencies directly to discuss your prospects. 8. Relocation is an upheaval for the whole family. Sit down with them to consider the wider issues well in advance of any decision. 9. We all make our best decisions when we’re feeling positive. Find a positive friend who’ll help you stay in the right frame of mind. 10. Redundancy is always going to be emotionally difficult. Try to avoid transferring your insecurity and mistrust to your next job. Siobhan Hamilton Phillips, senior consultant psychologist, Career Psychology