More employees plan on asking for a raise this year.

What can CFOs do about it?
article cover

Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images

· 5 min read

CFOs are in a bit of an impossible pickle right now (though, what’s new?).

Here’s the dilemma du jour: Employees feel increasingly cash-strapped, per a June PwC survey. That’s not a shocker. But, as a result of shrinking wallets, more employees are planning to ask for a raise this year, the survey also found.

That’s a fairly standard problem, too. But now, with a plethora of talent challenges already complicating the landscape, savvy CFOs will have to figure out how to keep employees happy while threading the conflicting needles that make our current economic moment so unique.

That’s the kind of dilemma that three-time former CFO and two-time COO Amy Spurling thinks about regularly as founder and CEO of Compt, an employee perk management system that helps align employees’ interests and company’s needs.

Spurling, who told CFO Brew she’s still recovering from managing a finance department during the 2008 recession, acknowledges that “things are very, very different right now,” particularly as a result of low unemployment, but there are still reliable tactics to try and keep everyone happy.

“As cost of living goes up, it’s not surprising people are going to ask for raises,” she told CFO Brew. “It’s really tough for both sides when it’s [employees saying,] ‘I need more money,’ and companies are sitting there going, ‘Well, we don’t have more money.’ That, to me, is not the most productive dynamic on either side of the table.”

Digest the data. What works best is something that CFOs are already well-practiced in: looking at the data.

“Where I navigate this is looking at market data whenever possible,” Spurling said, which takes the conversation away from unproductive back-and-forths. “That isn’t that isn’t how I’m going to build a compensation strategy. I want to make sure I’m fair to everyone,” she added.

Looking at market data, Spurling recommends finance leaders consider two big questions: “What does it cost to replace this person if they leave? And what would they be making somewhere else?” Since the entire market is moving, this isn’t a question that’s ever going to be solved on an individual employee level, she added.

However, since it’s such a delicate dance, both finance departments and employees will have to make some concessions. “You have companies that need to retain people, but they also can’t just infinitely increase salaries, and employees need to make more, but they also understand companies can’t just give you a 20%–30% increase across the board to combat what your life looks like,” Spurling said.

News built for finance pros

The latest news and insights corporate finance professionals need to know to keep up with their constantly evolving industry.

Tough conversations. “It’s going to be tense, honestly,” she continued, explaining that the key is remaining “as transparent and open as possible” when analyzing the state of compensation.

The best CFOs understand that, in addition to gathering and analyzing data, they also need to be expert storytellers. Similarly, Spurling stresses that effective, honest communication is critical for relaying hard truths after analyzing market data.

“I don’t think it’s possible to over-communicate as a CFO,” Spurling added. “The more you can communicate the realities of the business, sharing actual numbers with where the business is doing well [and] where things are struggling” can only help your case.

If cash-strapped employees know they need a raise to meet crucial needs, and simply think their employer just isn’t giving it to them, “that’s a really awful situation all the way around the table,” Spurling said. Alternatively, if employees can come into compensation discussions with an informed understanding of how and why the company’s financials have put them into this tight spot, that’ll lead to much more productive conversations.

A rock and a hard place. That’s not to say any of this will be easy. In some cases, these difficult conversations, no matter the data and tact behind them, will eventually culminate in standstills, with employees ready to seek greener pastures elsewhere.

Finance leaders will need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. “If you cannot afford to pay more, being very explicit about the ‘why,’ and being comfortable with some employee churn,” Spurling stressed. These are hard problems to solve for a reason: They’re genuinely hard.

As someone who looks closely at employee benefits, Spurling also thinks finance departments shouldn’t ignore alternatives when the numbers just aren’t working out. CFOs might want to think “about other ways you can expand what you’re offering without it costing as much,” she noted, adding that there are likely ways of “leveraging benefits to attract and retain people.”

You might ask yourself how to “set [benefits] up to where people have the most flexibility possible because everyone’s personal situation is different,” she noted. It’s all about maximizing utilization. “It’s really [about] allowing for that flexibility without having a budget for each individual thing,” Spurling explained. “That’s where CFOs and finance folks can be looking at: ‘How do we get very efficient on this spend [where it can] reach more people and do it in a way that’s far more impactful for employees?’”

News built for finance pros

The latest news and insights corporate finance professionals need to know to keep up with their constantly evolving industry.