From Q-tips to Wisk laundry detergent, Unilever Home and Personal Care—USA produces a tool for almost every aspect of household management. And its finance organization seems no less thorough when it comes to helping its own 215 staffers manage their careers. “We like our CFOs of the future to be businesspeople, as well as fnancially skilled,” says Joe Wilhelm, vice president of finance at Unilever HPC, a Greenwich, Connecticut-based unit of Dutch consumer-products giant Unilever NV. For one thing, broadening their experience involves exposing finance employees to assignments in other countries and stints outside finance, usually lasting six months or more in each case. The company also uses its four-year-old finance-mentoring program not only for professional and personal development but also for building morale. Further, finance has added a new emphasis on ethics training, focusing on “ethical gray zones”—such as the line between proper and improper competitive-intelligence activities.
“Without the training, employees would be confused about the fuzzy areas,” says Jay Ludy, director of financial reporting at Unilever HPC.
Unilever’s balance of practices for managing human capital in finance—along with a commitment to measuring results internally—stand out in the third annual Best Workplaces for Finance Professionals program, conducted by the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP) and The Hackett Group in conjunction with CFO magazine. In all, 99 companies have participated during the three years. In 2003, Unilever had the highest overall score among 19 companies—edging out Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Integrated Systems (IS) division, in a group that included such companies as Telephone and Data Systems, VHA, Arrow Electronics, and Best Buy.
The program isn’t about competing for top scores, however. Designed to help participants identify strengths and weaknesses in their finance departments, the Best Workplaces methodology allows benchmarking against other finance departments and offers lessons about how to manage better. While focusing the first two years on company practices in five original categories—personal-professional development, quality of life, employee job satisfaction, innovation, and tools—researchers have been learning, too. This year, to boost understanding of how finance departments deal with ethical concerns, the program established a separate business-ethics category and combined the innovation and tools categories for scoring purposes (see “Learning from the Pentagon,” at the end of this article).
Certainly, some of the participating companies have done lots of training in ethics for years. Take Northrop Grumman Corp.’s IS division. Training sessions cite Northrop scandals dating back to the 1970s, and the human-resources department takes a semiannual poll of finance employees to make sure they know procedures for reporting any improprieties they observe. “We try to make it clear that we don’t penalize or punish” whistle-blowers, says Lance Newquist, CFO and vice president for business management at Northrop Grumman IS. “You don’t get fired for identifying; you get fired for covering up.”
But while company finance departments use the Best Workplaces categories to put distinct elements of finance under the microscope, a clear conclusion from this year’s research is that no individual aspect of the finance workplace is totally discrete. Rather, there is interconnectivity across the five areas—manifested in intangible characteristics like team spirit, a sense of organizational discipline, respect for employees’ personal lives, and a willingness to learn from past mistakes.