The War for Talent Is Still On

Skilled finance staffers remain hard to find and even harder to keep, but you can win them over with reconfigured jobs, flexible schedules, and unusual perks.

The labor market is generally teeming with available talent, yet skilled finance and accounting employees are not necessarily any easier to find. Indeed, the accounting profession shed less than 2% of its jobs between September 2008 and September 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and CFOs who have recently hired say salary levels remain high. Perhaps more worrisome, Ajilon Finance recently surveyed more than 450 accountants and found that 23% plan to look for a new job when the economy improves.

That means that as corporate finance departments become 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 firm Winter, Wyman & Co. “If you lose anyone [going forward], it will probably be a key player or [he or she] would be gone already.”

And losing a finance staffer to a competitor means not only a business disruption but an economic hit, 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 is tempting to look for cheap and quick gratification in the form of springing for the occasional pizza 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 providing more opportunities for people to do what they do best,” says Chris Rice, CEO of human-resources consulting firm BlessingWhite.

When Rice’s company surveyed some 7,500 employees around the world last year, including 270 U.S. finance employees, it 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), along with a good relationship with their manager. “You can be working for a company that’s terrible in many regards, 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 a rotational program for finance, and help get managers closer to operations.

This year Grant Barber, finance chief Hughes Satellite, rotated three of his direct reports into new roles within finance specifically 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 with what I see outside, this looks much better.’”

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