Breaking down the payroll ‘Brick Wall’

At the risk of being unpopular here, I thought I would share a view on an ever-decreasing issue that those outside of payroll often face. I call this the payroll ‘Brick Wall’. What do I mean by this? Allow me to explain.

Payroll Brick Wall

I have sat in many HR and Payroll offices, more so in the last few years since joining Phase 3 HR technology consultants. One comment I have repeatedly heard is: “… can’t talk now… we’re running Payroll”. In one office, this was actually how the person answered the telephone, hanging up on the caller without giving them a chance to reply, hence my naming this the ‘Brick Wall’.

With so many committed payroll consultant professionals out there, I wonder if this is the norm or if those guilty of this behaviour are the minority in our field. I, for one, hope this is the latter!

What happens during the payroll cycle?

For those who don’t work in payroll, the process can be akin to ‘Hogwarts’ (practising a dark art, locked away in a payroll dungeon). Do we do enough to demystify what actually happens in payroll? I can confidently say that payroll is not just a ‘click of a button’ which is a statement that does bring a bitter taste to my mouth (and see our article on this here.) For those not involved in the process, I hope here to demystify what actually happens during the normal payroll cycle.

Money is emotive

I’ve been shouted at, screamed at, and consoled many a crying employee. Payroll people have to be compassionate, dedicated and thick-skinned. We are the end of many processes but the first people our customers call when something is wrong. Sometimes it is our fault – we made a mistake. We are human but often processes we have in place let us down, or other people do. If we are brutally honest, although there are many things that keep us in a job, the pay we expect is the most prominent.

Our payroll and HR systems should support us

Payroll and HR systems sometimes let us down. Whilst people can assume that those on ‘regular salaries’ with little variation might be the easiest people to pay, our systems often resemble something possessed by a wizard’s wand. Good systems help you identify the errors and locate the source of the issue. Poor systems cause the problem and don’t alert us to it.

A wider question is posed: ‘Will we be able to remove the human from the payroll process?’

I don’t think we are quite there yet. There probably isn’t a payroll professional out there who hasn’t had to sit unticking hundreds of boxes when an error occurred or had to manually calculate something that systems can’t quite grasp each month.

We don’t have time machines

But ‘effective from’ dates can be our best friend. Within any given month there are a number of days when we can make changes safely with enough time to check and test the results. Where there isn’t that time, or people forget to tell us, we have to be able to calculate the amounts owed to employees (or by employees).

There are all sorts of implications when things don’t happen on time. What happens with the pensions, the absences, the benefits (not to mention Tax, Student Loan or court orders)? We have to be consistent in our application and then tell HMRC about the changes too.

Yes, we do check payroll reports

The average payroll in our managed services has 26 reports to be checked, balanced and reviewed during each period to ensure payments are accurate. Our reports search for errors and make us aware of anomalies – but we need to find them too. We have to make decisions – sometimes those are unpopular. The last thing we want is for someone not to be paid correctly.

The ‘Brick Wall’

With so much going on and so much to check, it can be easy to forget that there are other priorities – other things happening. If the payroll processes are so poor that we fail our customers, this is something we need to address. The committed payroll person will always be there to proactively reduce errors as much as possible but can be forgiven for feeling the pressure and the heat when that deadline looms. For some teams, there is a momentary sigh of relief once the magic button has been pressed to send payment to the bank. Yet, our process doesn’t end there. We simply get ready to start it all over again.

How do we break down the payroll wall?

In my opinion, the wall is currently only at waist height – (it previously stood ten feet tall). There is more that we can do, though:

Payroll Health Checks are a fabulous tool –  someone independently reviewing payroll, not to criticise but to provide expertise, whether that be on systems, processes, future proofing and risk reduction, sharing with those close to us (HR, Finance, IT) the challenges we face periodically, making our customers aware of ‘reduced contact time’ or carving our time in that crammed diary to spend solely on improvements.

You must love payroll. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t do it. For those not in payroll, celebrate the successes of the payroll team and their efforts and remember, once in a while, it is nice to say thanks to those people who make sure your pay is correct every month. We like the nice phone calls too!

To learn more about how Phase 3 can assist you and your Payroll teams, please contact us via and read about our payroll services.

Read more about Payroll Services here

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