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Shining the spotlight on silent achievers

Edition: 6

Almost every team has one of those people who work in the background, never making a fuss, just quietly working away to get things lined up and delivered on time every week.

In the HR team, that person is often Payroll.

So, we spoke with two payroll directors to find out more about this critical function – what it is, why it’s important, and why you should want to work there.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Andrew Blunden: I’m currently Director of Payroll at the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). I have over 7 years of experience in payroll.

Cate Tinney: My role is Director of Pay and Administration Centre Victoria at the Department of Defence. Most of my background is in people leadership and policy work – I came into Defence and payroll about 18 months ago.

What is payroll, and why is it so important?

Andrew: In its simplest form, payroll is about making sure staff get paid, on time and correctly. I will always say payroll is the most important business area of any organisation, because it doesn’t matter how much people love their job – they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t get paid. We are the silent achievers, if you like, because no one thinks about payroll until something goes wrong. It doesn’t matter if we get a million transactions right and processed seamlessly – you get one transaction wrong, and everyone knows about it!

What don’t people understand about payroll?

Andrew: It’s a tough gig. There’s a requirement for accuracy and attention to detail, and everything we do impacts people personally because it impacts their pay… everybody thinks you push a button and it just happens. Even though there are many different processes and functions that are now automated, we still do a lot of manual work. For example, where staff enter in leave, or a manager doesn’t approve that leave until 2 or 3 weeks after the event, and they didn’t have enough leave at the time – then we need to get involved to make sure any potential overpayment is managed.

Cate – as someone relatively new to payroll, what were your perspectives going in and what are they now?

Cate: Before I started in payroll, I didn’t fully appreciate the complexity of delivering it. I didn’t understand how closely people in payroll worked with other human resources functions such as Workplace Relations teams, Code of Conduct teams and IT system implementation teams. There’s a lot of collaboration needed to align people, policy, employment instruments, and systems to enable the delivery of payroll services.

Why isn’t payroll part of the finance area in your organisation?

Andrew: That is a question that does not, and will not, ever have a clear-cut answer. Payroll is one of those areas that could easily sit within HR or finance; it has a foot on either side. People could say, ‘Well you’re dealing with salary, you’re dealing with money, it’s a financial transaction, it should sit in the finance area.’

However, my opinion is that payroll is about people. It’s not just about the organisation paying its salary, per se. You’re dealing with terms and conditions, recruitment, business areas that deal with health and conduct issues, which can all impact someone’s take home pay. All of those areas are HR.

HR deals directly with humans, and pay is the most personal transaction every employee will have with their organisation. We’re the one business area that impacts every employee – and no other business area can say that.

Cate: I agree it’s a people-centred business, but that’s not to say that finance isn’t important – we do reconciliation work with them and work closely on other matters that arise, like reporting and so on. It’s a very large part of what goes on. The financial dimension can’t be overlooked.

How closely does payroll work with other areas?

Andrew: We absolutely need to work very closely with other business areas. In payroll, we’re not an island. We have to work with areas on things like programs and issues relating to health, employee wellbeing and workplace change. This is so we can correctly adjust people’s salaries where needed, or for where there’s a VR [voluntary redundancy], we need to work with other business areas so we can get estimates out to people.

We also work with business areas within our own branch, like Talent Acquisition when new recruits are coming in, to get people set up on the payroll systems, and our People Helpline area who are our workflow managers.

Obviously, we also need to work closely with payroll areas in other agencies when someone moves into or out of the ATO. Additionally, we also work closely with the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation and other super funds, because we’re the people paying superannuation. If there are any enquiries, we need to have good relations with these areas. There’s always a lot of stuff going on in the background.

What are the most important qualities that HR staff need to work in payroll?

Cate: I think that having a strong customer service ethos is critical. There’s being empathetic, inclusive, discrete, respecting privacy, being analytical and having great attention to detail. People need to be able to learn and be interested in learning more because it is inevitable that there will be changes to systems, changes to legislation, changes to conditions of employment that people will need to understand.

People need the ability to apply policy and legislation, and also to explain their application. No one wants to find out that there’s been a mistake in their pay or leave accrual, particularly if other things in their life aren’t going well. Being able to explain why there’s been a mistake, what corrective action has been taken or why a decision has been made that was not what the person expected, is really important. 

Andrew: The best people who work in payroll are the people who understand that they’re dealing with someone’s pay – potentially one of the most important things they can do. You need to be able to put the client at the centre of everything you do. So, there’s got to be that level of empathy that you bring to the job.

There are also multiple roles in payroll, from processing to research, and dealing with more complex enquiries – there are multiple things at play. You might have a query about higher duties, but that query may impact on other things like corporate allowances, superannuation. So understanding that every transaction may have other considerations.

Probably the third thing is… while the nuts and bolts of payroll haven’t changed (you’re still paying people), conditions change. Things you need to consider change, legislations change, businesses change. All these different changes can have an impact. Changes are constant, so you need to be able to adapt.

The three biggest things are empathy, adaptability, and being able to see the bigger picture – understanding that a payroll transaction is not just a payroll transaction.

We heard the Department of Defence payroll area is looking to make some big changes. Can you tell us about that?

Cate: We currently have a project looking into how we can use robotic process automation to streamline some areas of payroll. We’re doing this to create more capacity to be able to sustain our other activities that rely on people skills. And we’re very close to going live with some of these. It’s going to really make a difference in terms of reducing the more repetitive elements in some of our functions.

Because we’re preparing for a massive system change, a lot of our work is also looking at what technology is coming in the future that we can leverage from, to have better systems that are easier for our customers to use and that require less manual intervention.

Our teams are looking at how to transition and doing a lot of planning – we can’t afford to have glitches when those sorts of changes are introduced. It’s really critical that we invest in preparing and project planning. There’s a lot going on in terms of innovation and technology.

What’s one thing you’d like others to know about payroll?

Cate: If in doubt about whether another HR project or initiative may impact on payroll, please consult us early. Part of our work is helping other HR practitioners understand the effect that other HR decisions can have on payroll and implementing necessary changes. For example, an allowance change may need system changes and quality assurance activities. So understanding the implications helps with implementing any changes. We’re happy to discuss the impact and that side of things, but the earlier the better.

Also, if you’re keen to broaden your HR horizons, keep your eyes out for a role in payroll!

Any final thoughts?

Cate: There is a risk that payroll can be taken for granted and taken as a ‘set and forget’ activity – but it’s far from that. A lot of different work types and tasks are required to ensure we get pay exactly right for our people. The clear outcomes of payroll delivery help give us a strong sense of achievement.

Andrew: It’s not an easy area to work in because of the pressure, but it’s quite a fulfilling place to work. You know what you’re doing has a direct bearing on how people feel. You might not get a big thank you, but the sense of satisfaction from knowing that you’ve made a difference to that person… it’s a good feeling.

Although often overlooked, it’s clear that payroll is a diverse and varied area that fulfils a wide range of crucial functions across the organisation, from ensuring policy and legislation compliance to contributing to employee morale. So, the next time your pay hits your bank account, take a moment to appreciate the vital work being done by your quiet colleagues in payroll.

Last reviewed: 
17 November 2020