CFOs Still Fighting to Retain Skilled Staff

Beyond offering extra bucks, finance chiefs are finding that reshaping jobs, providing community-service and fitness opportunities, and supplying a...
Alix StuartAugust 26, 2009

The labor market is generally teeming with talent in search of work. But skilled finance and accounting employees are not necessarily any easier to find these days. Indeed, the accounting profession shed less than 2% of its jobs between June 2008 and June 2009, according to Ajilon Finance, and CFOs who have recently hired say salary levels remain high.

“It’s still a very competitive marketplace for finance talent,” says Tom Ackerman, CFO of Charles River Laboratories, who recently hired a direct report. Perhaps more worrisome, a recent survey of more than 450 accountants by Ajilon found that 23% plan to look for a new job when the economy improves.

That means that as corporate finance departments go leaner than ever, it’s high time for finance executives to focus on winning the loyalty of their remaining staffers now and into the recovery, say experts. “At this stage, when most companies have had a restructuring or layoffs, you’re going to find there are a lot of skeleton crews in corporate finance,” says Jonathan Mazzocchi, general manager of the accounting and finance division at staffing company Winter, Wyman & Co. in New York. “If you lose anyone, it will probably be a key player or they would be gone already.” And losing a finance staffer to a competitor means not only a business disruption but also losing money, considering that staff replacement costs are generally 120% to 130% of the salary of the person who leaves.

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So what are some of the best ways to retain finance staff when budgets are tight? While it’s tempting to look for cheap and quick gratification in the form of buying pizza for the office or offering spot rewards, many experts say the most effective retention tools don’t need to cost anything at all — and could even save money. “The biggest driver of satisfaction is not free bagels, and not even your compensation, but rather more opportunities to do what you do best,” says Chris Rice, CEO of human-resources consulting firm BlessingWhite.

When BlessingWhite surveyed some 7,500 employees around the world last year, including 270 U.S. finance employees, Rice found that perks didn’t even make the top eight factors employees rated as key to their satisfaction. Instead, employees typically want more challenging work and more say in how it’s done, plus a good relationship with their manager. “You can be working for a terrible place to work, but if you have a great relationship with your manager, that could mitigate a lot of the problems,” says Rice.

With that in mind, here are three ideas to consider as you seek to keep your best and brightest:

1. Reshape jobs. “It’s very easy to retain employees by giving them more challenging responsibilities and upgrading their titles,” says Mazzocchi, even if that means adding a layer of titles that didn’t exist before, such as assistant manager positions. Another way to mix it up: introduce some type of rotational program for finance, and help get managers closer to operations.

This year Grant Barber, CFO of Hughes Satellite, rotated three of his direct reports into new roles within finance for retention purposes. “I know they are being recruited,” he says. “My goal is to have people look inside and say, when I compare my future inside Hughes to what I see outside, this looks much better.”

Even though some of the three resisted initially, since most were comfortable in their roles, he was ultimately able to persuade them through one-on-one meetings. “I want them to have variety, growth, and flexibility,” says Barber. “I didn’t want to have to make the first move because somebody quit.”

That type of flexibility can not only motivate employees but also pay dividends for the employer as businesses shift focus. The longstanding rotation program in finance at Actuant, a $1.66 billion (in annual revenue) diversified industrial company, has made staffers “generalists rather than specialists,” says CFO Andrew Lampereur. That, he adds, has “really been a benefit in the downturn. As we’ve had to move people around even more, they’re prepared for it; they’re not like deer in the headlights.”

If current budgets don’t allow for the raises that often go along with such a promotion, Mazzocchi recommends, offer to revisit the issue of salary increases in six months, with a promise to increase it and even offer back pay if the company is in better financial shape at that point. “That way you keep the carrot out there,” he says, without making promises not tied to the financial health of the company.

2. Help employees reshape life outside work. Finance and accounting staffers at Life Time Fitness decided several years ago that their department’s annual summer boat cruise on Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, wasn’t the most effective way to build group camaraderie. “It was nice, but we were looking for something with a little more meaning,” says Ken Cooper, vice president of finance for the New York Stock Exchange–traded fitness center operator, which is based in Chanhassen, Minnesota. As a result, the boat cruise was replaced with a four-and-a-half hour bus ride to Wisconsin to clear trails for a day, something that about 75% of the 45-person department participated in last September. Cooper expects similar enthusiasm this September, when the group will repeat the community-service outing.

Community service is becoming an increasingly common team-building exercise, says Jodi Chavez, senior vice president at Ajilon Professional Staffing. Many accounting firms now allow staffers a set number of work hours for volunteering, for example. But not all team activities have to be service-focused. Cooper and Life Time Fitness controller John Hugo started a six-month program called “Fiscal Fitness” for all finance and accounting staff last April modeled after the TV series “The Biggest Loser.” With nearly 100% participation, the department is currently divided into teams of four. Each team aims to make the most improvement in terms of weight, strength, and other fitness goals by October. Intermittent competitions, such as a bowling tournament or a run around the company campus, help teams assess where they stand.

The program has helped employees become more enthusiastic about the workplace and is helping to make it easier for them to reach personal goals. “For some, this is their first time on a team; for others, it’s part of their DNA,” says Cooper, who, along with Hugo, CFO Michael Robinson, and CEO Bahram Akradi, regularly participates in triathlons the company sponsors for charity. So far, he says, turnover is no higher or lower than it is normally.

3. Allow more time off and/or flexible work schedules. Many employers, particularly accounting firms, are formally allowing flexible work schedules, such as those in which employees can take every 10th day off. But offering a few bonus vacation days ad hoc can also be very appealing. “You might say to someone, ‘You’ve been working hard — why don’t you take the next two or three Fridays off?’” says Mazzocchi.

This clearly won’t work during crunch times. With a little foresight, however, a CFO could make this offer to any given number of employees over the course of several months.

Another relatively inexpensive bonus: giving the gift of you. Some employees would lap up the chance to have lunch or play golf with the CFO, say experts. “The more you can get people to feel like they have visibility at a high level,” says Mazzocchi, “the more likely they are to stay.”


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