Ditching the Scarlet Letter

Recruiters say being unemployed no longer a big hindrance to getting employed. Plus: Sarbox driving up CFOs' budgets, stress-levels.

It used to be that unemployment created a maddening Catch-22: You need a job, but no one will hire you because they wonder why you don’t already have one. But a new survey suggests that the burden of unemployment is easing up.

In a poll of 323 recruiters by ExecuNet, a career-management and executive recruiting specialist, 81 percent of recruiters said that being unemployed presents less of a stigma to the executive candidate today than five years ago.

Of course, most job seekers will likely take solace in that survey for about three seconds. Then, they’ll go back to looking for work. And their numbers are steadily rising. The survey shows that about one in four of the respondents who went to job interviews last year were unemployed at the time. That’s up from 21 percent in 2001 and 13 percent in 2000.

“The bias against unemployed candidates is no longer the hurdle it once was — but it hasn’t disappeared,” says ExecuNet CEO Dave Opton. “When faced with this potential barrier, candidates should focus on demonstrating how they are uniquely qualified to solve the problems facing the company that is hiring.”

That sounds about right to Thomas Sobell, chair of the Boston chapter of the Financial Executives Networking Group. He estimates that around 60 percent of Boston FENG members (including himself) are unemployed or “under-employed.”

In general, Sobell says unemployment is not a major issue with recruiters now, provided candidates can show they’ve kept busy through projects such as consulting work. But “there are certainly exceptions,” he adds, noting that retained-search firms tend to favor candidates who are working.

While being unemployed may be less of a stigma than it used to be, companies are becoming more selective and less flexible when screening candidates, reports Execunet. Asked how the weak economy has affected the executive employment market, 86 percent of recruiters said job specifications are becoming more demanding; 75 percent reported that companies are becoming cautious about extending relocation offers. About the same percentage of respondents said that companies are less flexible than in the past when extending a job offer.

Sobell, who works as a consultant and takes interim-CFO assignments, can attest to that choosiness as well. He says even that experience has, on occasion, actually proved a hindrance to his job search. “I’ve had recruiters say, ‘You’re a consultant; you’re used to being on the move. You’re not used to being an employee.’ So my consulting work is a negative.”

Back to the Catch-22.

Survey: Sarbox Means More Work for Finance

On the other end of the employment spectrum: it seems a steady paycheck brings its own problems these days.

Consider this comment to BusinessWeek magazine by Home Depot Inc. CFO Carol Tome: “For all of my professional life, all I wanted was to be a CFO,” she said in the March 17 issue. “But there are now days when I really ask myself if I signed up for all this.” And she wasn’t the only CFO whose laments were quoted in the article.

Why so glum? With the demands of the post-Enron world, the CFO job has become decidedly less fun. According to one survey released this week by Parson Consulting, a financial-management consultancy, compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is giving senior finance executives more work and more stress.

On average, the 100 CFOs and other finance executives surveyed are putting in three extra hours weekly to comply with the law. More than 25 percent say the law is “very confusing,” which is surely one reason that 20 percent call the new requirements “one of the greatest challenges my department is facing right now.”

Yet for all their efforts, few finance professionals see exceptional benefits from the legislation. In fact, just six percent in this study agree with the statement “Sarbanes-Oxley will ensure that there will be fewer corporate scandals based on accounting practices in the future.”

This isn’t to say they believe nothing good would come from Sarbanes-Oxley. Many of the finance executives polled did expect some benefits, mostly within their own finance organizations. For instance, one-third believe the law will be the impetus for making “operational improvements in their financial departments.” Another 44 percent indicated that Sarbanes-Oxley will be help “remov[e] conflicts of interest that auditing firms face.”

Among the other results of the Parson poll: 29 percent of finance executives reported their companies currently are in full compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley; 44 percent expect to be in full compliance within the next year; and five percent say they need more than a year to get up to speed. More than half said that complying with the federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act on corporate disclosure has increased their finance budgets by up to 20 percent.

This is not the first survey to report such findings. IN a March survey by BusinessWeek and Deloitte Consulting (soon to be Braxton), 91 percent of 214 CFOs said their jobs were getting harder in the post-Enron era. Another 62 percent reported working longer hours. This pool of respondents (which also included 75 CEOs) was more optimistic than the Parson respondents about Sarbanes-Oxley’s efficacy in reducing corporate fraud. Still, almost one-third believed the new rules wouldn’t help.

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