Marcia Passos Duffy

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Ramping up

Mentors are valuable in helping new hires get up to speed, but not many companies go through the trouble of creating formal — or even informal — mentorship programs, according to a new survey. A majority (58 percent) of chief financial officers recently polled said that it is uncommon for new hires to be matched with mentors within their organizations.

The survey, developed by Accountemps, was conducted by an independent research firm and includes responses from more than 1,400 CFOs from a stratified random sample of U.S. companies with 20 or more employees.

“While mentoring seems like such a great way to get a new employee acclimated to an organization, many companies don’t even have an informal mentoring program in place to encourage new hires to connect with established professionals,” says Jason Skidmore, Columbus’s regional vice president for Robert Half International, Accountemps’s parent company.

Smart Business spoke with Skidmore about why it is important for businesses to start mentorship programs, and steps companies can take to start one.

Why is it important to have mentoring programs in companies?

The main bottom-line reason is that it helps new hires to get acclimated and ramped up into the work environment more quickly.

It is also important because of the good feelings it fosters for both the mentor and the new hire. For the mentor, it is a pat on the back as well as a privilege and an honor to be asked to guide a new employee. For the employee that is being mentored, it shows that the organization is committed to his or her career, growth and development.

Relationships with supervisors are always a bit tricky; it is not always easy to be completely honest with your boss. So a mentor is an objective third party that the newly hired employee can go to for advice and guidance.

Why do you think so few companies institute mentoring programs?

The main reason is that nobody has stepped back to think about it and set one up. Many organizations don’t do it because they can’t figure out how it is done. However, if the idea is handed off to the Human Resources department, it can happen more quickly. While the mentorship program should always be run at a department level, the HR department can be instrumental in getting it off the ground by developing a standard 8- to 12-week curriculum.

That said, we all recognize that everyone has so much on their plates these days. It is hard for two people to carve out 30 minutes a week to dedicate to a mentorship program. But, if there is a formalized process within the organization with an approved curriculum, people do find time to make it happen. People quickly realize that the benefits of mentoring far outweigh the inconvenience of taking time out each week.

Have you ever participated in a mentorship program?

Yes, I’ve been both a mentor and a mentoree. As a mentoree during my first 60 days on the job, it helped me to understand how to operate in the organization. The best thing about being mentored is that I could learn from the mistakes of others. While it was a formal program that was officially over within 60 days, I still keep in touch with my mentor after seven years.

I have also been a mentor to employees, and I would hope that they learned from my mistakes as well. I have to say that mentoring helped me in my current job since it helped me to hone in on what the department should be doing because here I was coaching someone on how to do it the right way. It’s a great feeling to be a mentor. It reinforced that the company is confident in my abilities as a leader who could be counted on to bring other people along.

What are some steps that companies can take to start a mentoring program?

There are several:

  • Clearly define the objectives and goals of the mentorship program. What do you want the mentor and mentoree to get out of the program? Do you want to pair people up to help them in the technical or cultural/operational aspects of the job?

  • Contact your HR department. Use its skills in organizational development to create a mentorship curriculum.

  • Get feedback from staff. You could formulate a task force to discuss and approve the curriculum, and add what they would like to see in a mentorship program and how they would like to see it orchestrated.

JASON SKIDMORE is the regional vice president for Robert Half International in Columbus. Reach him at (614) 221-9300 or jason.skidmore@rhi.com.

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

The survey says ...

Employees love to complain about their bosses. But how bad, really, are those managers who occupy supervisory positions in a company? According to a recent study, most employees think that their bosses are not so bad after all. More than half (52 percent) of employees polled say they are satisfied with the performance of their bosses; similarly, 60 percent of workers say they can trust their managers and less than one-quarter (24 percent) of workers feel they could do a better job than their bosses if put in charge.

The survey, developed by Robert Half International, the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm, and Career-Builder.com, the United States’ largest online job site, was conducted via a Web panel and includes responses from more than 3,000 U.S. workers.

“Our study shows that despite the fact that some employees complain about their superiors, managers are actually doing a fairly good job and employees are happy, in most cases, with their immediate supervisors,” says Robin Webster, branch manager of Robert Half International’s Houston office.

Smart Business spoke with Webster about the results of this survey and the characteristics that make a good boss.

What are some of the highlights of this survey?

Not only did we learn that the majority of employees view their superiors in a positive light, we also learned that managers draw the highest marks when it comes to addressing day-to-day problems. For example, 58 percent of employees say their bosses make time to review their job concerns; only 22 percent disagree. However, workers are somewhat less enthusiastic about their supervisors’ willingness to help them advance professionally. Only 45 percent of respondents say their managers help them develop new skills.

In addition, while most employees are happy with their immediate supervisor’s performance, workers aren’t as thrilled about top executives … only 45 percent of workers say they are satisfied with their corporate leader’s performance, which is about 8 percent lower.

Why do workers have different views of their managers and corporate leaders?

It appears that the higher up the ranks an executive goes, the more difficult it is to communicate with staff. It is this communication that is key to creating an environment where the employee feels heard. The fact that employees are not as satisfied with company executives as their own immediate supervisors reveals that some companies may not be doing a good job of relaying company objectives and communicating with employees. Executives really need to go that extra mile to keep the lines of communication open with staff.

What makes a good boss?

There are many characteristics that make a good boss, but good communication skills are key. There is a need for supervisors to constantly communicate with their staff; this is particularly important in this competitive hiring environment when top employees may receive job offers from other companies. Retention is key. Bosses need to continually ensure that employees are satisfied with their jobs and feel like they are being heard. Good bosses also lead by example, are good at relaying information so that all employees are on the same page, and help employees achieve their own career objectives, as well as the objectives of the company.

While good bosses help employees achieve their career objectives, your survey reveals that managers are not doing a great job in this area.

That’s right. Our survey shows that only 45 percent of respondents say their managers help them develop professionally. This is an area for improvement since helping employees advance is a good way to foster company loyalty and help increase employee performance. This is an area that often gets put on the back burner because professional development takes time and many managers feel they're too busy to take on this role.

How can managers improve this?

Managers need to take the time to regularly touch base and communicate with their staff. It’s important for people to know their bosses will support them. Sit down with employees and find out what their personal career goals are, and then take steps to help them achieve these goals. Supervisors need to be proactive in addressing challenges and help workers solve problems they may have. Managers may feel they don’t have the time, but this is a critical step in retaining top workers in the long run.

ROBIN WEBSTER is the branch manager of Robert Half International’s Houston office. (www.rhi.com). Reach her at (713) 623-4700 or robin.webster@rhi.com.

Monday, 26 March 2007 20:00

Tax as a management tool

Organizations often view taxes as a necessary evil. And, indeed, business taxes are considered unwieldy, complex — even frightening. As a result, they are often relegated to the corporate tax department. However, when a business decision is made — invariably a tax decision has also been made — albeit unwittingly at times, says Jamie B. Fowler, partner and Tax Practice leader for the Dallas office of Grant Thornton LLP accounting firm.

“An organization’s true tax burden is embedded in operations and throughout the company’s supply chain,” says Fowler.

Smart Business spoke with Fowler about how tax planning can and should become a management tool for a company by making tax strategy an integral part of business strategy.

In what business areas should taxes be given the most careful consideration?

At Grant Thornton, we typically examine a company’s tax position along critical areas of the supply chain: research and development, procurement, processing, assembly, distribution (which includes both transportation and warehousing), sales and marketing, service, and support. We also consider the functions that surround the supply chain including brand management, merchandising and marketing, finance, customer relationship management, distribution and asset management, and retail.

For example, take an area such as brand management. Many companies view brand management and the related ability to influence the look and feel of the customer experience, as the primary organizational value driver. From a tax viewpoint, value is added at the point in the supply chain when goods are branded. This, in turn, determines the jurisdiction of taxability as well as value of those goods for income and property tax purposes.

In addition, where licensing and intellectual property are attached to the brand through copyrights, patents and trademarks also impacts the jurisdiction of taxation and may impact custom and duty charges when a product is imported.

If managing taxes can have such grave implications on profits, why isn’t it done?

The problem lies in our history as well as in the way our organizations are typically structured. The corporate tax department is rarely looked to for innovation. The prevailing views are these: (1) The less we hear from the corporate tax people, the better or (2) the tax department is a post-mortem compliance function.

Many companies don’t want to undergo this kind of tax planning because they have the mistaken assumption it will have a negative impact on customers. Good tax planning will be transparent to customers, but it won’t be easy. There has to be a culture and discipline present around having tax professionals at the table at the front end of business decisions.

Frankly, the time period of tax shelters in the late ’90s actually hurt the cause I’m advocating. Organizations in general now have a ‘don’t-get-burned’ attitude and have relegated the tax function even further into the back office. In the tax shelter days, companies would sign a few documents, make some quick superficial changes, and large tax savings would somehow fall out. Of course, those savings weren’t sustainable and don’t represent true strategic tax planning. Because of this, many organizations are now very risk-adverse and may avoid embracing the tax function.

What are some steps an organization can take to make that cultural shift?

It starts from the top down with CEOs and audit committees. Taxes need to be pulled out of the financial cost center, embedded in the operational profits centers and given a seat at the table whenever there are strategy decisions, great or small.

In my view, taxation is the last management frontier. We’ve tackled our supply chains with Total Quality Management, ‘Just in Time,’ Six Sigma and other methodologies. We have embraced many changes, such as developing closer relationships with suppliers and sharing once-sensitive information. Our supply chains have become more global, more technologically advanced and cross ownership is common. I contend that the truly competitive organization will now look to taxation in every part of its supply chain as a management tool and competitive advantage.

Are there businesses that have embraced taxes as a management tool?

Yes, and they regularly involve tax professionals along the entire business process, including all production and supply chain conversations and IT decisions. All types of taxes are considered before making decisions, including transaction taxes, income taxes and international levies. This kind of front-end management of taxes cannot only save a lot of money, but it is the only way to truly understand operational product margins.

There is no better time than now to change the way organizations think about taxes. With Sarbanes-Oxley, most companies have been required to examine their business processes … why not examine the way taxes are viewed as well?

JAMIE B. FOWLER is a partner and Tax Practice leader for the Dallas office of Grant Thornton LLP. Reach Fowler at (214) 561-2306 or Jamie.fowler@gt.com.

Monday, 26 March 2007 20:00

Winning employees over

While hosting team-building events and giving increased responsibility are common ways to motivate staff, a new survey reveals that a simple thank you will also win over employees. Thirty-five percent of workers and 30 percent of chief financial officers (CFOs) cited frequent recognition of accomplishments as the most effective nonmonetary reward. Regular communication was the second-most-common response, given by 20 percent of employees and 36 percent of CFOs. The surveys were developed by Accountemps, the world’s first and largest specialized staffing service for temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals.

“It is important that employees know that their input is valued,” says Jason Skidmore, vice president for Accountemps in Columbus.

Smart Business spoke with Skidmore about the importance of recognition and what employers can do to ensure that employees know that their work is being appreciated.

Why was the simple thank you ranked high among the nontangible incentives?

It’s human nature to want appreciation and recognition. While salary is important, the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing a job well — and having it recognized — is also valuable. We always think of the tangible rewards we can throw at people, but a thank you — which is so basic and simple — goes a long way.

How much recognition is appropriate?

It’s a balancing act, because recognition given every day or even every week will quickly lose its luster. But recognition that is well-deserved and is given periodically, either privately or at company functions or team meetings (once a month or once a quarter), can be a powerful motivator.

What should managers do to recognize the accomplishments of their staff?

Yes, because recognition also works to motivate the manager. However, I would suggest that the employee coordinate the recognition with other members of the team. Otherwise, the praise might be misconstrued as trying to gain favor with the manager.

How can managers increase the level of communication and recognition with their staff?

First, managers need to create a culture that looks for the good in people and recognizes publicly and privately work well done. This kind of culture also encourages team members to recognize and motivate each other. After all, recognition does not have to come just from the manager or the organization.

Goal-setting is very important to creating this kind of culture. When each member of the team knows the parameters of a project and its goals, it is easier to see when people have done a good job to meet those goals.

Mentorships also help recognize excellence. When a manager asks a veteran worker to mentor a less experienced worker, it sends the message that the mentor’s contribution is important to the organization … that the mentor has been hand-selected to bring up the next generation of workers. It sends a positive message to the person being mentored as well: that the organization thinks enough of this person to provide guidance.

The important thing to remember when trying to increase recognition is that managers need to create a culture in which communication is valued, and there is a systematic approach in place to recognize good work.

Recognition does need to be public, but it also needs to be private as well. The occasional recognition behind closed doors during a meeting can make a big difference. A simple thank you during a one-onone meeting is important, but also an e-mail or a thank-you card goes a long way. Public recognition can be in the form of an announcement at a meeting, in the company’s blog, intranet or newsletter.

What should employees who feel that they do not receive sufficient recognition do?

The most appropriate thing is to reach out to their immediate supervisor to request time to discuss their work. Sometimes employees are not getting recognition because there is a good reason, such as below-standard work (and that employee needs to hear constructive criticism as well).

But if an employee knows that a job has been well done and nothing has been said, he or she needs to ask for feedback. That kind of communication with a manager is very appropriate.

Should an employee ever recognize his or her manager?

JASON SKIDMORE is the vice president of Accountemps in Columbus. Reach him at Jason.skidmore@rhi.com or (614) 221-9300.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 19:00

Consulting before retiring

Retirement may look very different for baby boomers who are approaching an age at which the previous generation was already playing golf and moving into retirement communities.

According to a new survey by Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of information technology professionals on a project and full-time basis, nearly half (46 percent) of chief information officers (CIOs) say they are likely to consider consulting or project work as a way to transition to retirement. The national poll included responses from more than 1,400 CIOs from a sample of U.S. companies with 100 or more employees.

“Leaving full-time work, especially for information technology professionals, does not mean checking out of the work force entirely,” says Brandon Riley, division director of Robert Half Technology in Houston. “The bridge to retirement for these IT professionals is consulting work.”

Smart Business spoke with Riley about the implications of the impeding legions of baby boomers moving out of full-time work, and what the consulting trend means for both workers and employers.

Was this a surprising trend — that CIOs prefer easing into retirement with consulting work rather than leaving the work force altogether?

No, this was not a surprise to us. Particularly since many IT managers who are not even near retirement are doing consulting work. The fact is that this is a very good market — and a lucrative one — for being in the IT field, and that includes professionals taking on consulting work.

Why would CIOs, or executives in general, be interested in consulting work?

Becoming a consultant can leave room for a lot of flexibility. For example, an IT consultant can choose to work with the specific technologies he or she prefers.

This is attractive, particularly to CIOs who stepped out of technology over the years and had become more of an administrator dealing with staff management and company politics.

Consulting provides a great opportunity for these people to become more technical again — which is often what they love in the first place. They can also pick and choose the projects they find most interesting, which may also allow them time for other personal or professional interests. It can be an ideal set-up to work from a home office, set your own hours and have all the flexibility that goes along with that.

What kind of benefits can companies reap from this trend?

The IT consulting trend gives companies an opportunity to have an informal mentoring or succession planning program, passing on knowledge from the experienced, retired IT workers to those at entry level. It helps to mentor entry-level workers about the company's big picture because with heads-down, dayto-day activity, it may be difficult for junior workers to understand what their job means to the company. A more experienced consultant can help broaden that scope.

Companies are also turning to this group for help in managing legacy systems. If a company has legacy computer applications in operation, it can be beneficial to hire an experienced consultant who is familiar with these operations, such as previous ASP and VB6 applications. These were precursors to dot-net technology, which many entry-level IT professionals have experience with or are striving to get into. However, these professionals may not be familiar with older applications. Not all companies have upgraded to dot-net applications yet, which puts these companies at a disadvantage when trying to find IT workers.

Are companies receptive to hiring retired workers or those nearing retirement?

Companies realize the value seasoned workers bring to a firm. A semi-retired IT consultant requires little or no training, understands legacy applications, and can be a mentor to other employees. There are benefits all around. In fact, many companies are offering incentives to attract these professionals, including offering flexible work arrangements, telecommuting and work/life balance programs.

How can companies find qualified retired IT workers for consulting?

They can look inside their own company for CIOs or IT directors who are approaching retirement age and suggest doing consulting work with the company upon retirement. Another option is to contact a staffing company that specializes in placing high-quality, experienced IT consultants.

BRANDON RILEY is the Houston division director for Robert Half Technology (www.rht.com), a leading provider of technology professionals for initiatives ranging from Web development and multiplatform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Reach Riley at Brandon.riley@rht.com or (713) 623-4700.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Medical fraud

Many business owners rarely think that health insurance fraud will happen in their company — but the fact remains that insurance fraud, waste and abuse happens across the board in companies large and small and is costing America’s health care system billions of dollars.

Insurance fraud, waste and abuse is estimated to take up at least 10 percent of total health care dollars spent with an estimated total of $260 billion annually by 2010, says Cissy Walker, director of audit services for AvMed Health Plans of Gainesville. “Health care fraud, waste and abuse is a menace to each person, their family and the future of health care,” says Walker. “It results in higher premiums or fewer benefits, higher co-payments and even higher taxes.”

Smart Business spoke with Walker about the serious problem of health insurance fraud and what businesses can do to prevent it.

Could you give an example of the financial impact of fraud and abuse on the average insurance premium?

As I mentioned, about 10 percent to 12 percent of total health care dollars are to cover fraud, waste and abuse. For example, of the $1.7 trillion spent on health care in 2004, 11 percent directly relates to prescription drugs. Approximately 11 million people are on prescription drugs without a medical need supporting the drug.

What are some ways that business owners and employees can detect and prevent insurance fraud?

As part of their compliance program, they can establish a rational, integrated, control-oriented anti-fraud program. Of major importance is education and awareness of detection and prevention. Companies need an active fraud awareness program to include a well-publicized referral system that allows employees to report any suspect fraud, waste and abuse. Anonymity and nonretaliation must be assured, as appropriate for reporters.

Businesses need to implement mandatory annual training for every level within the organization to include awareness for detection, prevention and a referral system. Sharing facts with employees of the financial impact to consumers along with examples of current fraud trends in the nation often is not only an eye-opener, but can discourage waste and abuse and help prevent fraud.

What, exactly, is considered health care fraud and abuse?

Fraud is the intentional deception or misrepresentation that an individual or entity knows to be false or does not believe to be true and makes, knowing the deception could result in some unauthorized benefit to him/herself or some other person. The five elements of fraud include false representation, knowledge of its falsity, intent to defraud, justifiable reliance by the intended victim, and results in damage. Similar, abuses are practices by facilities, physicians and suppliers that — while not usually considered fraudulent — are nevertheless inconsistent with accepted medical, business and fiscal practices.

An error is the unintentional deviation from accuracy that affects claim adjudication such as unintentional billing error, incorrect procedure code, date of service error, incorrect member name or claim form mistake.

What is common among members of a health care provider, or employees of a company that provides health care?

There are many trends including loaning a health care identification card, enrolling non-eligible person(s), using stolen prescription pads, altering prescriptions, and excessive emergency room visits (in order to obtain) controlled substances.

What are some other common fraud and abuse trends?

They include: inflating costs (such as supplies and equipment), failure to report overpayments, seeking reimbursements for costs not related to patient care, failing to disclose relationships between business entities, and upcoding — using a code identifying a more complex diagnosis and/or procedure than what accurately reflects the patient’s condition and/or services provided, resulting in enhanced reimbursement.

Pharmacies can bill for higher supply than dispensed or bill for drugs not picked up. Other scams include billing for brand-name versus generic, excessive quantity dispensed, price fraud, and kickbacks using manufacturers’ products.

Physicians are also not exempt from participating in fraud schemes, to include performing medically unnecessary procedures, accepting kickbacks or bribery, billing free services, duplicating billing, waiver co-payments or deductible, misrepresenting a claim, selling filled prescriptions on the black market, prescribing to self or family and over-prescribing to patients.

CISSY WALKER is the director of audit services at AvMed Health Plans (www.AvMed.org) based in Gainesville. Reach her at (352) 337-8669 or cissy.walker@avmed.org.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

CFO time management

We have all sorts of gadgets to help manage time: laptops, BlackBerry devices, cell phones, PDAs, you name it. But despite technological advances designed to streamline workloads, chief financial officers still struggle to balance their schedules. According to a survey, nearly half (46 percent) of CFOs polled said “time management” is the greatest challenge for them today, up from 36 percent five years ago. “Keeping pace with technology” ranked second, with 22 percent of the response, versus 27 percent in 2001.

The survey, developed by Robert Half Management Resources, was conducted by an independent research firm and included responses from 1,400 CFOs from a random sample of U.S. companies with 20 or more employees.

“Not only does technology often make lives more complicated by creating a 24/7 work environment, many CFOs are facing the added burden of more operational responsibilities, board activities and compliance-related duties that take up their days,” says Rachel Caviness, division director for Robert Half Management Resources in Columbus.

Smart Business spoke with Caviness about the challenges financial executives face in today’s business world and what CFOs can do to help relieve some of the stress.

What does this survey tell us about financial executives and time management?

It’s a reflection of how much stress CFOs are under because of the additional demands being placed on their time. They are being called to do so much more these days because of new government regulations (such as Sarbanes-Oxley and FIN 48) that did not exist five years ago. In addition, the CFO is more heavily involved with the technology-related needs of his or her company, especially when it comes to implementing new accounting systems, report-writing packages and data warehouses.

The strong economic environment we’re experiencing today creates another element of demand on the CFO’s time. There is more merger and acquisition activity today than there was five years ago when the economy was extremely weak.

Are the technological advances that are supposed to save time making time management more of a challenge?

They can actually both save time and make time management more of a challenge. It saves time when technology is used efficiently. But technology, as we all know, can be a huge time-stealer. A person, for example, can access e-mail at any time or place through a BlackBerry. This can be good when an executive has some down-time and wants to get some work done, but it also can be a huge distraction from other work.

What can CFOs — and other businesspeople — do to help manage time?

Set aside blocks of time where you can answer e-mail messages — in the morning or immediately after lunch — and don’t feel the need to answer every single e-mail at once. You can certainly wait a few hours if an e-mail is not urgent. And some informational e-mails don’t require a response at all.

Also, choose the technology tools that truly are time saving, rather than all at your disposal. If you check your e-mail in-box every morning and afternoon, do you really need to have your BlackBerry at every meeting? Sometimes we add too much technology because it is there and not because it really helps.

Make sure that every meeting has a clear objective and an agenda that is followed. And find out if you have to be at a meeting at all. If there is a good note-taker who can send detailed minutes of the meeting, you might be able to capture the meeting’s essence in just five to 10 minutes of reading.

What can CFOs do to relieve the pressure of being asked to wear so many hats in this post-Sarbanes-Oxley environment?

They need to stay focused on their key roles in corporate governance and strategic initiatives and must be leery of taking on too much responsibility in other areas. Yes, they will be asked to oversee all financial projects and accounting department initiatives, but many responsibilities can be delegated to other staff members, and projects can be overseen by a consultant.

Finally, companies are encouraging executives and employees to work toward keeping a healthy work-life balance, which is probably the reason we did not see ‘achieving work-life balance’ rank high in our survey. More companies are encouraging overtaxed employees to take more vacation time or work flexible schedules in order to keep stress in check. The key for CFOs is to find a way to completely break away from e-mail and cell phones, so that they can recharge their batteries and work more efficiently when they do return to the office.

RACHEL CAVINESS is the Columbus division director for Robert Half Management Resources, which has more than 120 offices throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, and offers online job search services at www.roberthalfmr.com. Reach Caviness at (614) 224-1660 or Rachel.caviness@rhmr.com.

Wednesday, 03 January 2007 05:42

Hiring/compensation trends

Financial and accounting professionals have more negotiating power than they think. This year’s Employment Dynamics and GrowthExpectations (EDGE) report found that while there is currently a talent shortage in these professions, employees are cautious about thejob market and are less willing than last year to negotiate for higher salaries. The survey and report were developed by Robert HalfInternational (RHI), the world’s largest specialized staffing firm, and CareerBuilder.com, the United States’ largest online job site.

The survey, which included responses from more than 1,000 hiring managers and 3,000 workers, was conducted to determine which grouphas more clout in the current job market. “What is interesting is that both sides — the employer and employee — see the job market as challenging,” says Andrea Dunn, division director for Robert Half Finance and Accounting, which specializes in full-time placement in theColumbus area.

Smart Business spoke with Dunn about this curious discrepancy, and what it means for both workers and employers.

What are some of the highlights of the report?

On the employer side, 55 percent of hiring managers said that it was difficult finding qualified candidates a year ago and 81 percent saidthat it was as or more challenging moving forward. Of those, 52 percent of hiring managers attributed the difficulty to an overall shortage of skilled workers. That’s up from 47 percent last year.

On the employee side, 37 percent said the job market was more difficult than a year ago; that’s down a little from 42 percent from last year.Nearly one out of five workers said they are less likely to ask for more money from a potential employer in the upcoming year, and the numberof those who were more likely to negotiate for a higher base salary dropped significantly from a year ago.

Can you explain why those in the finance and accounting professions are not seeing the fact that they are a hot commodity?

Clearly, employees have more of an edge than they think. There may be a bit of a lag in employees knowing they have the upper hand,but that tide may turn in 2007. The reality is that there is a talent shortage in finance and accounting and it is only a matter of time untilboth employees and employers realize this fact and compensation levels rise accordingly.

One reason that this awareness has not filtered to the worker is that with rising fuel and housing costs many workers see the economy as worse than it actually is. Many employees feel lucky to even have a job, which is keeping them from asking for more money orseeking more lucrative opportunities.

Could you explain the reason for the talent shortage in finance and accounting professions?

There are three factors contributing to the shortage. The first is business expansion: many businesses are booming and are expanding— leading to an increased need to fill staff and upper level jobs.

The second factor is the increased need for these professionals to help businesses with corporate compliance in an environment ofincreased regulations.

The third is the fact that baby boomers are entering retirement age and there are fewer professionals available to step into their shoes.

Why else are employers are finding it difficult to fill these slots?

Many firms are behaving as though there is not a talent shortage and are overly selective when looking for the ‘perfect’ hire — that is, a person who can contribute immediately, has a diverse skill set, and can hit the ground running. The problem is that because of the shortage of talent, companies often miss the boat when looking for this idealized hire and often miss a great candidate.

Many companies don’t have streamlined recruitment strategy and put candidates through a long and inefficient interview process. Thisworks when there is a surplus of candidates, but it does not work when the talent pool is tight, like it is currently in the finance andaccounting professions. When a company is ready to make an offer, that candidate often has taken a job somewhere else.

What should employers do?

Employers not only need to streamline and speed up their recruitment process, but also look for innovative methods to retain the staff theyalready have in place. Employers also need to realize the fact that the task of attracting and retaining will not be as easy as it has in the past.The tried and true methods — salary increases, bonuses and flexible work schedules — are always good to implement. But another importantway to keep good employees is to make them feel valued. Most employees won’t jump ship over a modest salary increase if their work environment is pleasant and they feel that what they do is valued and appreciated.

ANDREA DUNN is a division director for Robert Half Finance and Accounting, specializing in full-time placement. Robert Half International has more than 350 locations throughout NorthAmerica, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and offers online job search services at www.roberthalf.com. Reach Dunn at (614) 221-9300 or andrea.dunn@roberthalf.com.

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Starting salaries on the rise

Accounting and finance professionals are in strong demand, a trend that will continue into next year, according to the 2007 Salary Guide from Robert Half International, a specialized consulting and staffing services firm with six branches in the Houston area. The company publishes salary data annually based on an analysis of the thousands of job placements managed by its U.S. offices.

Higher demand means, of course, higher salaries. According to the guide, base salaries for finance and accounting professionals are expected to increase, on average, by 3.8 percent in 2007. Financial professionals who will see the greatest gains in base pay include compliance professionals, internal auditors, financial analysts and public accountants.

There are two forces driving the demand — and the salary levels — for these professionals, says Caroline McGlaun, vice president of Robert Half International’s Houston Region. “The first is the need for more of these professionals because of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act,” McGlaun says. The second reason is that business, in general, is good. “Businesses are expanding, and when they expand they have a need for more financial reporting.”

Smart Business spoke with McGlaun about hiring and compensation trends for accounting and finance employees and what this means for businesses looking to attract and retain these professionals.

How do 2007 salaries compare to 2006?

The prospects for accounting and finance professionals remain bright. Starting salaries are expected to increase an average of 3.8 percent in 2007; however, certain in-demand specialties can expect even more notable salary increases.

For example, chief compliance officers can expect starting salaries to increase by 14.4 percent. Senior manager and director

positions at public accounting firms can expect starting salary increases to climb 7.6 percent. In the banking and financial services sector, business analysts can expect to see a 6.5 percent increase; private bankers will see an increase of 6.3 percent. Other positions with significant increases include bookkeepers (6.7 percent increase), corporate finance analysts (7 percent increase) and risk managers (6.7 percent increase).

What do you expect in terms of job growth in 2007?

Business expansion and compliance initiatives will continue to fuel the hiring of highly skilled professionals. The shortage of candidates has intensified, and employers often must offer premium compensation to attract these individuals.

Houston industries that are growing most rapidly include energy (oil and gas), manufacturing and commercial real estate. Within those industries, the specialties that are in highest demand are cost accounting (particularly in manufacturing), payroll and staff accounting positions.

In stable growth (or slower growing) industries, demand is driven by the increased need for compliance, requiring the services of more internal auditors and financial analysts.

This, no doubt, poses challenges to businesses trying to attract and retain these professionals.

What are some strategies business owners can use that are effective in recruitment and retention?

Because of the shortage in finance and accounting professionals — and we expect the demand to outpace the supply through 2007 — businesses need to intensify their recruitment as well as their retention strategies. The most obvious strategy, of course, is to raise an employee’s base pay. It is important to evaluate and adjust the base pay for those currently on the job, as well as incoming employees, in order to remain competitive.

Employers need to know what the compensation level is in their area for a particular specialty and be prepared to match or exceed that base salary. Knowing how your salary levels compare to the competition is imperative, as most employers are keenly aware that there is a talent shortage and an intense competition to fill these positions.

In addition to raising base pay, employers are more commonly offering signing and performance bonuses and enhancing their benefits packages. Other perks include providing relocation assistance, additional vacation time and offering a flexible schedule.

How can business owners obtain the 2007 Salary Guide?

Any company or individual can obtain a free copy of the 2007 Salary Guide from Robert Half International by visiting www.roberthalf.com or phoning (800) 474-4253.

CAROLINE MCGLAUN is the Houston Region vice president of Robert Half International, the world's first and largest specialized consulting and staffing services firm (www.rhi.com). Reach McGlaun at (281) 681-2940 or caroline.mcglaun@rhi.com.

Friday, 24 November 2006 19:00

Long-term savings

Businesses have been dealing with the burden of rising health care premiums for many years. However, the good news is that in the past couple of years, health benefit premiums are no longer seeing the double-digit increases of the past decade, and have slowed to a more manageable single-digit increase, says Shawn F. Barger, Pharm.D., director of clinical pharmacy management at AvMed Health Plans in Gainsville, Fla. Part of the reason that health benefits costs have slowed, interestingly enough, is because of the advances in the pharmaceutical industry.

“Yes, prescription drug costs have skyrocketed, but that is because there are more advanced therapies that did not exist 10 years ago,” he says. “But the benefit of these drugs is that they manage to rein in even more expensive hospitalizations and physician treatments.”

Smart Business spoke with Barger about these new trends in health care that may spell relief for companies that have been burdened with high health care premiums.

What are some of these drugs and why are they so expensive?

There are now specialty injectable or infusion products for diseases that are increasing quality of life; rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, asthma, hereditary diseases and diabetes. It is important to note that prior to these treatments coming out, many people — particularly those with rheumatoid arthritis — had a horrible quality of life. These new treatments can stop the progression of a disease and prevent the person from having to go on disability. So, while the treatments are very expensive to produce, they are having a huge impact on quality of life and the ability for a person to continue working.

How much do prescriptions drugs account for in an employer’s health care expenditures?

Roughly 15 percent. While it is not the majority of total costs, this percentage is increasing every year. The goal, of course, is that the more expensive drug therapies will decrease expenses of hospitalizations and emergency room visits. More companies — both businesses and pharmaceutical companies — are looking at what’s called ‘pharma-economics,’ in which the cost of higher drug therapies are offset by decreased visits to the ER and hospitals.

Is the increased availability of generic drugs helping to keep costs down?

Yes. The three categories of drugs that have been in the top five for drug spending have been statins (for high cholesterol such as Zocor and Pravachol), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs (anti-depressants such as Prozac and Zoloft), and proton pump inhibitors (such as Prilosec for gastroesophageal reflux disease/GERD).

The good news is that these drugs, which have been brand-only in the past, now have generics as alternatives to the brand, which has been a huge help in keeping costs down.

What are some ways that companies can work to rein in the costs of health benefits?

It is important for employers to remember, given what we just discussed, that managing prescription costs doesn’t always mean lowering costs. If employees are taking their prescriptions the way they should, the use of prescription medication will go up. But what might costs be if the employee did not take the medication? Would the employee take more time off because he or she is sick more often? Would he or she go on disability? Would visits to the ER increase? The employer needs to look at the big picture.

The way many companies are dealing with the rise in pharmacy costs is to raise the co-pays to offset the increase in prescription drug spending. But you can only do that to a certain point until it becomes a barrier to buying the medication and employees opt not to buy it — which can have many negative consequences. Co-pays should not be a barrier to getting needed medication.

What are some available cost-controlling tools that won’t jeopardize employee health?

Four major initiatives allow greater access to medications, which will show savings in hospitalizations over the long term.

  • 90-day supply of medication at retail pharmacies instead of just mail-order

  • Co-pay holidays if members switch to generics

  • Development of medication adherence programs

  • Removing prior authorizations and quality limits on certain medications

SHAWN F. BARGER, Pharm.D. is the director of clinical pharmacy management at AvMed Health Plans (www.AvMed.org) based in Gainesville. Reach Barger at (352) 337-8517 or Shawn.barger@avmed.org.