A professional performance

12 March 2018

This article was featured in the April 2018 issue of the magazine.

Payroll and pensions personnel are becoming increasingly invaluable to employers that want to stay on top of ever-changing legislation and avoid costly mistakes. But how do these professionals ensure they remain at the top of their game, asks freelance writer and editor Kavitha Sivasubramaaniam


Over the years, both payroll and pensions professionals have seen significant changes affecting the way they do their jobs; the introduction of real time information and automatic enrolment being just two examples of this. And, as the government continues to introduce new legislation affecting businesses, their roles are growing increasingly important in ensuring that organisations remain compliant and avoid any associated penalties as a result.

So, what does it take to be a good payroll or pensions professional, and what should be done to make sure they are performing to the best of their ability? Clearly there are key skills and attributes vital to their roles, as well as several that would be detrimental for them to possess.



Overall the most valuable skill for anyone working in payroll or pensions is to be an effective communicator, according to Ken Pullar, chief executive officer of CIPP. “Someone’s pay is very personal and very important to them, so it is essential for payroll professionals to be able to communicate with individuals regarding their pay, deductions from pay and overall reward and remuneration package in a personable and approachable manner” he says. 

Payroll involves much more than just moving pay forward, so it is vital to be able to convey the significance of an overall pay and reward strategy to director level within your organisation, as well as communicate the overall benefits of actively utilising the rewards package and benefits available to all employees, Pullar adds. He expects communication skills will only grow in significance due to changes such as gender pay reporting and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“With gender pay gap reporting, it is important to communicate the legitimate reasons why there could be a gap within your organisation, for example if the industry is heavily dominated by one gender. With GDPR it is important to communicate the benefits to employees, and probably more likely ex-employees, for payroll to retain their data on file beyond their employment.” 

Ian Hodson, head of reward at the University of Lincoln, is responsible for overseeing all aspects of pay, pensions, employee benefits and systems. He agrees that being a good communicator is now a must for any payroll or pensions specialist. “This is not the skill we used to associate with the profession when thinking about handling difficult queries. This is more the ability to deliver excellent customer service and to be able to market the different benefits that are offered through the payroll and articulate such aspects as financial savings. If we think about legislation such as auto-enrolment it is really fully dependant on the reward team being able to deliver the key messages on the importance of saving in order to make it effective,” he says, adding that in this respect the team are responsible for helping people change and form better habits.


...communication skills will only grow in significance... 


Core skills

The ability to calculate payroll manually is a fundamental skill which is often forgotten about, according to Pullar. “Often payroll professionals will hear the phrase ‘it’s just pushing a button’ and with software developments it is true that software makes payroll processing simpler, allowing more time for data analysis and payroll strategy development,” he says. “But what happens when that software goes wrong? Or when an employee is questioning their payslip and deductions? The payroll professional has to have the knowledge and skills to understand what the software has calculated and why to communicate to the employee.”

Simone Booy, head of payroll services at The Church of England, has worked in payroll for around thirty years and also thinks this an essential quality for professionals to have. “As payroll and pensions are all about calculations a payroll or pensions person would benefit from having a mathematical approach and numeracy skills, this would greatly reduce potential manual errors and give a better understanding when completing manual calculations,” she says.

However, there has been a change in the skills required to be a good payroll and pensions professional as other agendas such as technology and the need to be a good communicator of more complex legislative arrangements have changed how the role is delivered, according to Hodson. “We will never get away from the fact to deliver the operational aspects of the roles well you need to have a strength in being able to work accurately and efficiently; however, this skill also lends itself to being able to numerically identify when something just doesn’t ‘feel’ right.” He adds that this is often overlooked but a skill that is desired to identify movement in data or trends can help detect errors and shape decisions.

Professionals need to have a solid understanding and interest in legislation as well, since much of payroll revolves around this, pay as you earn (PAYE), National insurance contributions (NICs), pensions. “Legislation is constantly changing, and each year there is something new for employers to contend with,” explains Booy. “Organisations and workers rely on us to know about changes in advance and to ensure they are implemented.”


The right attributes

Payroll can be very rewarding, but it can also be frustrating because when someone’s pay is calculated incorrectly, it does not matter how the information was received or from whom, payroll will always be held accountable and will be expected to resolve any discrepancies, admits Booy. For this reason, someone going into the payroll field will need to be confident, approachable and understanding. Communication and timing are key, she says, and as the first port of call in a pay crisis, professionals must be prepared to deal with delicate matters.

And to be successful in any profession it is also important to be honest and to have integrity, particularly within payroll, says Pullar. “You are the one person within the organisation who has access to every single employee’s personal data and details of their pay, and potentially other financial information depending on the benefits package offered,” he explains. “Everything within your role is entrusted to you in confidence, and it is essential for your success and for the wellbeing of the organisations employees that you do not break that confidence.” 

In addition, you are entrusted with an organisation’s biggest expenditure, and quite often left to your own devices to ensure that everyone is paid accurately and on time. “Every so often there are cases within the media about payrollers, I won’t call them professionals, who have defrauded an organisation through ‘ghost’ employees,” says Pullar. “As a payroll professional, you should have the integrity to ensure that this does not happen within your organisation.”

Karen Thomson, payroll director at Armstrong Watson, a firm of accountants, business and financial advisers, agrees that dedication and integrity are key personality traits that a good payroll or pensions professional must have. “Empathy also plays a part; remember the employee doesn’t always understand payroll, tax etc,” she says. “Supporting all your customers is key; employees and the employer.”

Another key attribute linked to integrity is confidentiality since an individual’s pay is private and confidential, according to Booy. She says that regardless of the size of the salary or who the payroll is being run for, personal details should be securely stored, and payroll should not be discussed openly.

Elaine Gibson, education director at CIPP, believes the skills required will depend upon the level of role they have responsibility for or aspire to, but in term of personality traits says “a good sense of humour, coupled with an excellent level of written and oral communications skills are vital to underpin the technical skills and knowledge required. 

“Professionals are not just calculating payroll which relies on excellent technical skills, some are leading teams and supporting organisational strategy. A payroll and/or pensions professional needs to be multifaceted to run or work within today’s busy environment.

“An industry professional will need to be a well-rounded individual to include excellent technical skills and self-awareness. An individual’s traits can have a positive or negative impact and so self-awareness is vital so that you can gauge how your behaviour impacts on others.”

Pullar also believes that time management is imperative in payroll and pensions due to the deadline driven nature of the role and the dependence on line managers and others within the organisation to submit information required in a timely manner. 


The wrong attitude

Thomson says a negative, dismissive and uncaring attitude are the worst traits a professional should have because “no professional should have these and payroll is no different”. 

This sentiment is shared by Hodson: “Anybody who demonstrates an inflexibility to change or negativity will find it hard to progress in the profession. We are really answerable to direction from internal and external influences so you have to accept that you may not always like or even agree with what is thrown at you but you need to approach it in a positive way. It is always okay to have a little moan but it can’t become an embedded attitude.”

A good professional should also know their limits and not be a ‘yes’ person. “It might seem like you are being accommodating and helpful by trying to assist everyone with everything, but this can lead to being overwhelmed and overworked,” explains Pullar. “A good professional should know their capacity and not take on too much. They should also know when to say ‘no’ for their benefit or for the benefit of the organisation.”

Payroll can be complex, it is process and date driven, customer focussed and confidential, it is a vital part of each and every organisation, explains Booy. She says: “We all go to work and hope to get paid accurately and on time; to achieve this takes a committed, numerate and confident individual. Payroll and pensions are constantly changing so it you do not like a challenge or change, this profession is not for you.”


...important to be honest and to have integrity, particularly within payroll...


Passion and pride

Overall the most important traits are being positive, passionate and proud, insists Hodson. “Let’s not forget that being a reward professional is still underpinned by tight deadlines, complex legislation, external governance and difficult scenarios and you need to be both positive and passionate to deal with this. However, that positivity and passion is also what drives the agenda for then wanting to do things better, or try new things or bring in new technologies,” he says. “I don’t think the profession will ever stop changing and as professionals we need to evolve with it and take opportunities to push forward when they arise.”

Hodson says the ability to be proud of our work and profession can often be forgotten as we move on to the next deadline so quickly, but to be a good professional and particularly a good leader of a team you need to be able to be proud of what we do and allow individuals the time and space to celebrate our achievements. “You have to love what you are doing. and this gets you through the difficult days when things don’t go to plan and also helps you keep that focus for wanting to continually improve things and improve the customer experience,” he adds.


Learning and development

Most industry professionals concur that simply acquiring the right attributes, attitudes and skills isn’t enough – continuing professional development (CPD) is crucial in ensuring they remain fit for purpose. 

The CIPP are advocates of building the profession and encouragement for learning and development related to the workplace. 

“We never stop learning or growing in business. In payroll it is important to stay up to date on legislative changes for compliance reasons, but it is equally as important to keep up to date on technology changes and develop ‘soft’ skills,” says Pullar. 

He believes that as the role of payroll has changed over time, this has highlighted the importance of keeping up to date throughout your career. “Legislation and systems continue to evolve. When I started in payroll thirty years ago it was on a Kalamazoo card system, so I was fortunate to learn manual calculations from the onset and I had HMRC books to refer to for PAYE and NICs calculations.”

Over the years computers and automation have replaced old systems and processes, making it easy for professionals to become complacent. However, relying on technology to run the payroll and automated processes to complete calculations can impact skills and knowledge, he says.

“I recommend attending seminars and workshops to keep up to date,” says Booy. “If you intend to have a long successful career in payroll it is vital to keep up to date with changes through as many channels as possible.”

And this shouldn’t be difficult for those intent on continuing their learning journey. As well as the CIPP’s own training, software providers often hold annual conferences, while publications and reputable websites are also a good source of information and are easily accessible.

“Payroll professionals in particular handle the largest cost to business – the workforce pay and related benefits and deductions – so compliance is key,” says Gibson. 

Less than competent teams can put a business at risk for fines and penalties; however, they may not realise. “Employers need to realise responsibility for learning and development for payroll and pensions professionals as it will pay dividends in eliminating the risk for fines and penalties,” adds Gibson.


...more important than ever that professionals constantly refresh their knowledge and skills...


Keeping up with the times

So, how should professionals remain one step ahead and ensure their attributes and attitudes are both current and relevant? “Network, network, network. Pick up the best traits you can identify with from colleagues and acknowledge the behaviours and skills you don’t want to replicate and always be proud of the work and service you provide,” advises Hodson.

And, of course, as payroll becomes more about overall pay and reward strategies than just salary, especially with legislation such as gender pay gap reporting and GDPR impacting on payroll, it is more important than ever that professionals constantly refresh their knowledge and skills. 

“As technology advances and legislation continues on its ever-evolving treadmill, I can see things changing dramatically as the years go by,” says Gibson, adding that there are likely to be some exciting times ahead for UK business and the impact on payroll and pensions.

Thomson concludes: “Stay in tune with times, adapt to the times and look to the future to be ready to embrace the inevitable changes.”