01 June 2024

Payroll professionals are often asked how they started out and what drives them to stay in the industry. Here, Eilidh McFarlane MCIPPdip, payroll manager at Angus Council, explains the countless opportunities payroll can present and how having something new to learn and adapt to ensures she remains enthused by her choice of career

As payroll professionals, we are constantly faced with deadlines. While some people may find this daunting, I thrive in a fast-paced and focussed working environment. There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of reaching payday each month, knowing that everyone’s hard work has paid off! Every day brings new learning opportunities and the fast-paced nature of working in payroll is invigorating, particularly because of the rapid changes.

Whether it’s updates in legislation, advancements in software or new queries from employees, there’s always something new to learn and adapt to. This keeps the work interesting, ensuring that no two days are the same. I have a passion for working with numbers and performing calculations, but I also love interacting with people, providing support and problem-solving. Payroll provides the perfect balance for me, allowing me to get my numerical and methodical skills within the context of helping others.


Opportunity for change

I believe the payroll profession is undervalued, but with the support of CIPP I see this as an opportunity for change. It’s a chance to educate individuals in every workplace about not only the importance of payroll, but also its complexity. Every organisation needs a payroll professional.

In addition to the fundamental skills required such as attention to detail, accuracy and time-management, employers are now seeking candidates with extensive specialist knowledge. Job postings often specify the need for a deep understanding of topics such as automatic enrolment, salary sacrifice and benefit in kind implications. Moreover, staying abreast of changes in legislation is essential yet daunting for many organisations. Payroll professionals must also be adaptable in their approach to working hours, as varying deadlines may require heightened focus at different times of the week or month. Being task-oriented, deadline-driven and dedicated to completing tasks are characteristic traits that aren’t always easy to come by but are exactly what I love about payroll.


A path of independence

As a young girl, I loved learning. I was driven to become successful and independent, to stand on my own two feet and earn my own wages. I was always considered mature for my age and when I was 13, I began my working life at a local hairdressing salon at the weekends and during the school holidays. This experience boosted my confidence and helped me develop essential skills in customer service, dealing with clientele from all walks of life. I became a mature, young adult with strong interpersonal skills.

At the age of 16, I decided to travel and do volunteer work, fundraising a trip to Ghana. During my time there, I lived with local families and worked alongside other volunteers from different parts of the world. I carried out maintenance works to school buildings, supported the local community, and taught the children at their schools. This experience was humbling and made me realise the importance of helping others most in need to make a difference.

On my return, I completed my hairdressing apprenticeship and pursued my goal of starting a business. When I handed in my notice to leave school at 16, my teachers were surprised and disappointed that I wanted to start work at such a young age. I was considered an academic pupil who would thrive in a university environment. Although I made a success of this journey, I realised I did miss out on academia. That’s when I decided to return to education part-time to study business and accountancy. During my studies, I worked as a compliance auditor for large businesses, which was a fascinating and educational experience. Upon completion of this course, I applied for a school leaver accountancy traineeship at a local firm and fell into a payroll position. By my own admission, this career path wasn’t by choice, however now I would say it was fate! I loved every second of this junior role.


Quick progression

From an early outset, although I knew nothing about payroll, I embraced the challenge and absorbed as much information and knowledge as possible from more experienced colleagues. I quickly progressed from a junior position into a senior role, eventually handling the payroll for more than 60 clients across various business sectors. Payroll was the perfect fit – I had excellent analytical skills and a particular focus on attention to detail which was recognised by my managers at the time.

The Covid-19 health pandemic highlighted the importance of payroll. Businesses relied heavily on the furlough scheme. My workplace was under significant pressures to support all clients timeously. This was my opportunity to thrive, becoming a pivotal part of the organisation. I took the bull by the horns and used this unique opportunity to take a lead and become a reliable member of staff, working under minimum supervision at the young age of 21. I successfully supported clients during a difficult and demanding time and mentored junior staff members to upskill and provide effective support.

By this point in my career, I knew payroll was my passion. I decided to further my education by pursuing the CIPP’s Foundation Degree in Payroll Management. Despite facing financial challenges and a lack of support from my employer, I fully funded the course. Following completion of year two of my degree at the age of 22 I progressed again, taking on a new role as payroll team leader at Hillcrest, a large social housing provider. Here I managed a small team of three individuals and oversaw the payroll and pensions for 1,200 employees.


More responsibility

This experience exposed me to new challenges and opportunities for growth where I had line management responsibilities and gained an understanding of the challenges of running in-house payroll. Despite the differences between bureau and in-house payroll teams, it became evident that within the profession there was a lack of qualified individuals, and this posed a real risk to organisations. It made me more motivated to continue studying so I had both experience and qualifications to complement each other.

Hillcrest was an excellent employer. It was a bold move to employ me into a management role at the age of 22, but I was mature, driven and showed my professionalism and passion for the role. As an employer, Hillcrest supported me and gave me the best opportunity to progress and succeed. I will be eternally thankful for my time there.

Within a year as payroll team leader, I was promoted to project manage the implementation of new human resources and payroll software. This was a huge learning curve for me as the lead of a large team. I was responsible for the full project cycle, from procurement to data conversion and parallel runs. In this role, I gained lots of knowledge on how technology and process re-design can improve the payroll services delivered. Throughout this experience, I realised that although I had never been a project manager before, I had the transferable skills from previous experiences that shone through to bring success in the role. One phrase - people skills. This is key in any project management role, to enthuse and empower others to meet deadlines. Working in a high pressure and deadline-driven environment is tough; normalising the ability to adapt at short notice and most importantly, being able to work and communicate clearly and concisely with other senior people requires certain skills.


New challenges

By the age of 24, I was ready to progress again – I accepted the role of payroll manager at Angus Council, managing a team of ten, overseeing the payroll for 7,500 employees. This role is particularly exciting as we face the ambition of amalgamating our payroll services with other local authorities. The aim of this is to create a resilient shared service payroll department for local authorities throughout the nation. I am in the fortunate position to be playing a key role in this, with great support around me.

Working within a local authority has presented a variety of new challenges, such as complex terms and conditions, outdated processes and lack of technology usage. They face unique challenges which have an impact on performance such as budget cuts, being heavily unionised and political involvement. However, I see this as an opportunity to make improvements with my payroll team. All local authorities will face similar challenges, therefore, working together to drive change will have the maximum impact. This role has demonstrated yet again that there’s such widespread variation within the payroll profession which allows for real opportunities for payrollers’ careers to become innovative and adaptive to sector challenges.

Despite my achievements so far in my payroll career, there’s still so much I would like to accomplish in the future. Earlier in the year I ran to be on the board of directors for CIPP, which has always been an aspiration of mine. In addition, I run my own payroll consultancy business, assisting various organisations with payroll processing, handling complex queries and supporting with the implementation of new software or other payroll-related changes.

I’m passionate about promoting payroll as a valuable profession and hope to see it taught in schools as a career pathway in future. I believe my journey demonstrates the countless opportunities in payroll, from leaving school at the age of 16 to becoming a senior manager in a Scottish local authority by 24. I’m excited to continue supporting others in their payroll careers and promoting the profession. 


This article feautured in the June 2024 issue of Professional.