21 September 2021

Roles in payroll are continually developing and evolving, but what does this mean for payroll professionals? Jerome Smail, business journalist, chats to several industry luminaries

Working in payroll brings exposure to diverse subjects – practical matters, scheduling, law, staff management, problem resolution, technology and so on, which means that new opportunities inevitably arise in the profession.

So, what are the career paths and opportunities that might present themselves, and what skills need to be acquired or developed?

To explore, I asked some of the brightest luminaries in the field:

  • John Cronin, chief executive officer of Subio

  • Louise Gray ChMCIPPdip, head of transitions and operations for EY Absolute

  • Nick Phillips ChMCIPPdip, service delivery manager, payroll developments for East Midlands Shared Services

  • Heidi Watson MCIPPdip, payroll and benefits manager for Swan

  • Karen Young, director of Hays Accountancy & Finance.


What knowledge of other functions in the organisation do payroll professionals need to have for a fully successful operation?

John Cronin: The more any individual understands about other functions, the greater the potential of providing meaningful contributions. Payroll professionals are no different.

This extends beyond just the ‘people’ element within each business, to understanding how every function works. Many payroll staff will already engage with finance and human resources (HR), but mainly on a transactional level. To move from being seen as a transactional group, payroll must understand wider business aims and objectives across all functions beyond HR and finance, including operations, sales, marketing and product.

Louise Gray: Compliance is fundamental to the payroll process to avoid penalties. Payroll professionals should understand the rules and regulations affecting day-to-day payroll in line with their role. Payroll duties frequently overlap with customer service duties and payroll professionals need to interact with courtesy, patience and understanding, being ready to address questions on a wide range of topics.

Nick Phillips: Whether it be your knowledge of payroll or other interrelated functions, it’s not always about what you retain in your head, but your ability to locate reliable and accurate sources of guidance when required.

Heidi Watson: I believe it’s important for the payroll department leader to have a good general knowledge of the business and its goals to allow the department to provide the right service to employees.

A payroll professional also needs a good understanding of the people function, as a lot of employment law crosses over both areas. An understanding of the finance function is a great benefit, allowing payroll to ensure software provides accurate journals and reports.

Karen Young: Payroll require extensive knowledge in their area of expertise to progress. However, if you wish to succeed further, you should be prepared to learn about other business functions, such as pensions, HR, and accounting. Areas like internal audit are beneficial too.

Increased integration between payroll and HR can be integral to effective talent acquisition and retention strategies. Many organisations are curating complex reward packages for their staff and payrollers find themselves more involved in the administration of such packages.

The greater your knowledge of reward principles, the more you will be able to embrace this development and add it to your skills portfolio. Additionally, the greater your knowledge of complex business operations, the more likely you are to advance to a managerial role in the future.


How can payroll professionals use their existing skills and knowledge to influence business decisions?

JC: To achieve any successful outcome, there are some major elements that payroll people should help the organisation understand and address.

Payroll staff provide valuable insights into what is working or not, what impact it has and how it manifests in productivity and efficiency. It may trigger a change or reinforce the need for an existing approach. Payroll is well placed to articulate how things will look and feel once change is implemented and can bring objectivity to the current situation, removing more subjective views. Payroll can model different scenarios and their subsequent impacts. To influence is not just about giving facts – it requires belief and passion.

LG: This comes back to utilising your networking skills, building rapport, listening to external stakeholders and asking appropriate questions to understand your audience. Payroll is fast becoming recognised as having a wider role to play in many company initiatives and strategies, and the pandemic has reinforced that.

NP: We are the gatekeepers of a powerful data set – the payroll. When leveraged correctly, our knowledge can influence strategic decision making. For example, before embarking on production of a new line, a manufacturing company would benefit from our expertise when considering recruiting new staff. This could relate to the Apprenticeship Levy – increasing the workforce could cause them to surpass the levy threshold, or perhaps they aren’t aware they can transfer the allowance to other organisations in their supply chain. Making them aware that no secondary National Insurance contributions are due for under-21s (or apprentices under 25) could impact recruitment decisions, and steer decisions about the viability of the new product.

HW: Payroll is one of the largest company expenses, so it is vital it has a ‘seat at the table’ to ensure its involvement in business decisions. A payroll professional should have up-to-date knowledge of legislation and know what is coming up. Sharing this with the business will help with accurate budget decisions.

KY: Developing existing interpersonal skills, such as networking, can significantly benefit payroll professionals, as establishing a robust internal network can help with profile raising within their organisation. This helps them become trusted advisors to the business and enables more involvement in influencing business decisions.

Equally, the ability to work effectively with complex data sets is key, as this means evidence can be provided to help in making those business decisions, subsequently helping people feel more valued within an organisation.

Strong relationships with key stakeholders can make it easier to get a project approved or increase career development opportunities. Similarly, by building relationships with decision makers, it’s possible to establish open lines of communication and stay abreast of strategic changes that may impact your role.


What soft skills and leadership behaviours should payroll professionals focus on to further their careers?

JC: Critical behaviours include curiosity and questioning for understanding (rather than simply accepting the as-is). Three key words jump to mind: communicate, challenge and (be) curious.

LG: Effective payroll professionals and leaders need to deal with a wide range of stakeholders — their team, directors, employees, board members, vendors and government. Polished written and verbal communication, good customer service and conflict resolution skills are essential for the modern leader and professional. Other skills include self-initiative, time management and effective team leadership.

NP: The ability to compromise can be a difficult soft-skill to master – but is one of the most vital, especially considering the extensive list of stakeholders the payroll function will have.

HW: People and communication skills should be a focus for someone wanting to grow their payroll career. You need to answer complex queries in a way the employee understands and be able to empathise with them when they have money worries.

KY: Soft skills such as good communication, customer service and conflict resolution skills are required to effectively liaise with clients, as well as to manage people and their expectations.

Payroll managers need self-initiative, outstanding time management skills and attention to detail to handle their intense workload and lead their team effectively. In the changing world of work, resilience is becoming a key skill that employers require now, and for the future. Payroll professionals should consider how they deal with change, and how they remain resilient and effective.


How can payroll leaders make the most of networking opportunities to improve their professional development?

JC: First and foremost, network outside of just payroll professionals. Connect and engage with all departments to gain a holistic view and insight into the business. Linkedin is useful. Rather than just blindly connecting to people, create posts about wanting to expand insight and bring more value, and see who it attracts.

Networking events are beneficial but a word of caution – they are littered with those seeking to sell rather than connect in any meaningful way. Use the network to identify learning opportunities. Approach someone as a mentor.

LG: There are three types of networks important in business and while many payroll professionals excel at using and building their operational network, often they overlook their personal and strategic networks.

Operational networking involves cultivating relationships with people helpful to the job. Likeminded people outside your organisation can assist in your personal development and provide coaching and mentoring. Strategic networking can be the toughest but is essential for managers wanting to progress their careers.

NP: The community of payroll professionals on LinkedIn demonstrates the industry’s openness, collegiate spirit and willingness to help one another.

If you post a question or seek advice from others who have overcome whatever challenge you are facing, you will likely get a valuable response. There is something about the cyclical nature of payroll that lends itself to fellow-feeling – we’re often all facing the same problems at similar times.

Also, with several professional bodies such as the CIPP, there are avenues for interacting with other payroll professionals. Engaging with software user groups or special interest groups can further ensure you are networking with those you can get the most value from and vice versa.

HW: I believe networking is key to professional development as it presents the opportunity to share experience and gain knowledge.

Through ‘putting myself out there’ at networking events over the last four years, I have placed in the top 100 Payroll Leaders for three consecutive years and won the Payroll Leader category this year. This has opened many opportunities for me, both in my role at Swan Housing and within the payroll and reward community.

KY: Networking is often not a priority for payroll professionals entering the workforce, but is an important skill to build, even in earlier stages of the career. It will always be important for the future.

It is commonly neglected by mid-career and more senior professionals who believe their network is already sufficient and no longer needs expanding. It is, however, very important for payrollers of all levels, as a well-built and maintained professional network is one of the most powerful tools for career advancement.

There are many ways you can develop your network, starting from within your own organisation, to becoming a mentor and building a strong network of ambassadors representing your brand. The benefits of having a robust network are endless, but the most significant benefit is the career opportunities it can offer.

By building professional relationships with individuals who work in a range of organisations and industries, it’s possible to gain a competitive edge through advance notice of job opportunities, as well as from personal connections that can help you get your foot in the door. 


Featured in the October 2021 issue of Professional in Payroll, Pensions and Reward. Correct at time of publication.