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 ad hoc vacation days are good tools to use to hang on to skilled finance staff.

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.

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.

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