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From APA Congress 2017: What to Do When the Whole Payroll Department is You

If you're a payroll department of one, you may need support from inside and outside your company. Take a look at takeaways from this session held at this year's American Payroll Association Congress in Orlando, FL.
APA Congress 2017

Larry White, CPP, started as a payroll manager years ago when the last manager left. His only experience at the time? He’d received paychecks.

How hard could payroll be?

Larry, now director, payroll training, for the American Payroll Association (APA), and Michelle Clawson, CPP, Driscoll Strawberry Associates, Inc. commiserated on the subject with an audience of just such departments-of-one at the 2017 APA Annual Congress.

When asked for the “pros” of being a one-person payroll department, an attendee mentioned being “the most popular person in the company.”

“Every two weeks,” Mr. White added.

In the meantime, their fingerprints are on everything. These payroll managers have power. They’re the heart of the company: financial super heroes. But as the saying goes about super heroes, with great power comes great responsibility.

Finding the Time

Consider time management. When there’s only one payroll person, their time is quickly taken by processing payrolls, answering questions, etc. Fortunately, technology now lets payroll managers do practically everything on-the-go, wherever they bring their laptop. With schedules clogged with meetings and deadlines always looming (as deadlines tend to do), it’s nice not to be chained to a desk all day – and sometimes night.

In addition to technology, there are some other ways payroll managers can get away for a time while still ensuring a smooth payroll process. Some ideas mentioned in the APA session included:

  • Creating a payroll calendar or schedule to send to the company with time-off marked, and posting it to the company intranet.
  • Educating the company (especially the people most affected) that payroll managers don’t just press a “Payroll” button. There’s a lot more to paying employees than that, even on “off” weeks.

When Managers Make Payroll Unmanageable

Besides never feeling like they have enough time, one-person payroll departments often have to deal with pushback from managers – especially when trying to get them to approve time cards on time.

“Nagging seems to work, but a lot is just training the managers … Once you have the conversation once or twice they start to become more proactive,” said one attendee.

Other situations may include managers who refuse to move away from paper-based procedures, or who fail to understand what it actually takes to process payroll each pay period.

Some ideas for managing managers included:

  • Giving them a choice of when a task may be completed, not including today or tomorrow. That way they still have control over the situation, but are less likely to force an unreasonable deadline.
  • If managers don’t know what it takes to get a certain task done, an explanation (not an excuse) may open their eyes.
  • If too much time is spent creating reports for managers, consider not creating them once and see which reports are actually asked about. The rest may be able to be “retired.”

Taking Time Off

“We’re never going to get a two-week vacation are we?” - Mrs. White, upon finding out her husband had become a payroll manager.

Many one-person payroll managers must creatively arrange their vacation time. In fact, even when payroll is processed every week, there are still ways a payroll manager can take a week off. Some examples from the group:

  • Work extra hours the week before to prepare the payroll. This is not ideal, however, since it’s really robbing the payroll manager of their fully allotted free time.
  • Use the situation to help make the case for a backup. The fact that one person may be signing the checks and reconciling the accounts is another powerful case for someone else being involved with the process.
  • Have well-written procedures, so someone can step in for you in an emergency. (For one-person payroll departments, a vacation qualifies as an emergency.) This suggestion was especially driven home by Ms. Clawson, who started out in this situation, and who still follows this advice now that she manages a much larger payroll department. 

Preparing for Payroll

Aside from specific situations, what are some general tips for these solitary payroll managers? Throughout the APA Congress session, the presenters and attendees had several useful ideas for helping make payroll preparation easier and safer, such as:

  • Creating well written procedures, including what needs to done on what day. (Screenshot anything odd to update in the procedures later.)
  • Communicating expectations to the managers and employees.
  • Writing a to-do list/checklist and sharing with people who can back you up.
  • Choosing an HCM system where the steps are built in, so a supervisor or backup can follow it.
  • Be proactive, don’t wait until the last minute.
  • Separate duties, so not in the potentially dangerous position of reconciling and signing the checks. An external auditor may help make the case for bringing someone else into the process.
  • Having a supervisor check up on the process to keep everyone out of legal issues.
  • Have empathy for your fellow employees. Imagine what may happen if their paycheck is late.
  • Be a good listener, but when it becomes too busy maybe consider what one payroll manager did and put up a sign on the door that reads, “I am processing your payroll. If what you need is more important, please knock.” Ha.
  • Make a year-end checklist and think of all the deadlines. Take a very regimented approach. Share it with someone, “in case you win the lottery and leave,” according to Ms. Clawson, who added that it’s much nicer than saying “in case you get hit by a bus.”

Keeping Up with Laws and Regulations

Speaking of being hit by a bus, with all of this time spent doing payroll, how can payroll managers keep up with training concerning new or updated laws and regulations? The APA itself is an excellent resource, with free training from local chapters, The Payroll Source, the State Guide to Payroll, Pay State Update, and the APA’s subscription service, Payroll Source Plus. Working with a company like Paychex, with its teams of proactive compliance experts, may help as well.

If you’re a payroll department of one, know that your work is appreciated. It’s a difficult job, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but with some creative planning and support from inside and outside your company, it can be a fulfilling career – or a launch pad to leading a full team dedicated to making sure employees are paid on time, every time.


Image courtesy of American Payroll Association

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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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