What’s needed for a career in payroll

Three attributes employers often seek in payroll staff are: work experience in payroll, certification by the Canadian Payroll Association and knowledge of the HRIS or payroll system used by that employer. While these are understandable, I am not sure they best describe what kind of person it takes to work in payroll or the best candidate for any particular position.

For example, the expectation candidates should have experience in payroll makes it difficult for people to enter the profession. In other words, people seeking their first payroll job are in a catch-22 situation: you can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get that experience without first having a job.

It also strikes me that these three attributes are relatively easily acquired, given the right circumstances. By contrast, I would rather see employers focus on skills and attributes that are either a part of a person’s character or personality or are more difficult to obtain.

One of the core attributes anyone working in payroll should possess is being a detail-oriented, numbers person. One of payroll’s primary duties is to ensure employees are paid accurately. Since this is all about numbers, it’s pretty hard to see how a person could be a good fit in payroll, if they don’t have high numerical literacy.

It’s not just the ability to work with numbers that’s required. It’s also about a fundamental level of curiosity. For example, the right person should be the kind that might look at a payroll register and say “hmm – that doesn’t seem quite right”. In other words, the right kind of person has a natural inquisitiveness that leads them to ask questions about what they are doing. If a person doesn’t have this curiosity about how things are done and a drive to make them better, then I would argue that person isn’t a good fit to work in payroll.

What’s required goes beyond just curiosity. In many payroll shops, knowledge is handed down by word of mouth. The right kind of person should be willing to respectfully challenge either the prevailing way of doing things or the prevailing understanding of the rules. In other words, the right kind of person should not be satisfied with “well, that’s the way it’s always been done” as an answer.

The right kind of person should know how to find their own answers to payroll questions. For example, when faced with a new earning, every person working in payroll should know how to determine if it’s an insured earning for EI hours or dollars purposes. It’s too much too expect that every person can always recite the required answers from memory. The more important skill is that everyone who works in payroll should know how to find answers to questions like these. And, with respect to the CPA, that doesn’t mean phoning InfoLine.

What’s needed is that, at some level, every person working in payroll should know how to do their own research. For starting positions, this means a good working knowledge of the main CRA guides (T4001, T4130 and RC4120) and, where applicable, the main Revenue Quebec guides (IN-253, RL-1.g and TP-1015.g). A higher level of skill would mean knowing where to look past these. A person with higher skill levels should have the ability to read the source deduction and employment standards statutes and regulations that apply.

There are two aspects of systems knowledge that I would also stress as being important.

First, every payroll system has its quirks that can only be learned from using it. To that extent, it’s reasonable to ask for experience with a particular payroll system. But I think employers place too much emphasis on this. Companies don’t stay with the same system forever. Payroll or HR systems seem to go through roughly 5-year life cycles, where due to changing company requirements, mergers and acquisitions or dissatisfaction with service levels, employers seek out a new HR or payroll system. There are also tasks that every payroll system has to be able to do. For example, every payroll system has to be able to define which earnings are reported on which box or under which Other Information area code on the T4. What’s different is how each system defines this setup. From my perspective, the right kind of person would be able to gather more from exposure to this setup in multiple payroll systems than from lengthy experience with just the system currently in use.

Second, every payroll person should have good working knowledge of manipulating payroll data in Excel. I have yet to see any payroll system that meets 100% of the functionality required. Every system has to be complemented by working with payroll data in Excel spreadsheets. For example, it’s a best practice to log the current values from each payroll run into an Excel spreadsheet. At year-end these current values are balanced to the payroll system’s year-to-dates. This serves to verify the accuracy of these YTDs and can be used to ensure that the correct earnings are being reported in the correct T4 boxes and Other Information area codes. Every payroll person with year-end responsibilities should be able to perform such a task in Excel, including building the spreadsheet from scratch.

Alan McEwen is a Vancouver Island-based HRIS/Payroll consultant and freelance writer with over 20 years’ experience in all aspects of the industry. He can be reached at armcewen@shaw.ca, (250) 228-5280 or visit www.alanrmcewen.com for more information.

About Alan R. McEwen

HRIS/Payroll consultant and freelance writer
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2 Responses to What’s needed for a career in payroll

  1. ig says:

    Hi to every single one, it’s genuinely a pleasant for
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  2. Marge C. says:

    I totally agree with you. Technical competency skills can always be learned; but inherent attributes like curiousity, patience, detail-oriented, interpersonal and common sense cannot be taught. That’s where the hiring manager for payroll personnel/accounting should give more bearing….sometimes we need to take the risk of trusting inexperienced payroll applicant.

    Marge C.

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