Employee relations a critical payroll function

Focus on handling employee concerns and communicating change effectively

When Fatima Mirza started her new job as HR manager at MacDonald Island Park Corporation in Fort McMurray, Alta., she spent a lot of time getting to know the 25 or so employees in the company. She made it very clear the door was always open and even posted a sign in her office that said, “No question is stupid.” Employees would often walk right into her office, sit down and be completely comfortable asking her any questions they had, she said. Now, a year and a half later — and a gain of 275 employees — Mirza has been promoted to director of HR.  

“The basic thing with any job is that it all begins with employee relations,” said Mirza. “It’s so much easier to bring forward any issues or introduce new items once you have employee relations packed down.”

A major part of Mirza’s role is overseeing payroll. Employee relations in this department are becoming increasingly important now that the days of just checking time cards and processing payroll are gone, she said.

“It’s not an island anymore like it used to be,” said Diane Wiesenthal, vice-president of people and organizational services at the Canadian Wheat Board in Winnipeg, which has 460 employees. “It used to be very inwardly focused, but now it’s more of an integrated team player because (payroll professionals) have very close working relationships with HR, finance and employees — that’s a lot of people they’re touching.”

When an employee first walks into the payroll department, the conversation should begin with “How can I help you?” said Mirza. The employees should have confidence in the payroll department and feel comfortable coming to them with questions. 

“You really need to have an open mind and try to understand where they’re coming from,” she said. “You should mould your communication style to who you’re dealing with so they have that comfort level.”

Whether employees are calling, emailing or visiting in person, every interaction is an opportunity to either “enhance the business relationship or to hurt it,” said Fiorella Callocchia, president of HR Impact and director of the HR Fundamentals seminar offered by the Canadian Payroll Association.

“Word of mouth spreads fast,” said Wiesenthal. “It’s important for payroll to be open, welcoming and encouraging, and if you have a good reputation for being receptive, more referrals will come your way.”

Payroll professionals should seek to hone their listening, facilitation, problem resolution and conflict management skills in order to effectively handle employee issues and concerns, said Callocchia.

Payroll is in a unique position to deliver information from employees to other departments in order to improve service, said Ofelia Isabel, Canadian leader of Towers Watson’s rewards, talents and communication practice based in Toronto.

Payroll knows firsthand where the issues are, where there is a lack of understanding and where more communication is needed, based on concerns and questions they receive from employees, she said. 

“Organizations would be much better off if payroll came forward and said they were getting a lot of questions on a particular issue,” said Isabel. “This is a huge value added because they do see those things and without bringing them forward they are just sort of lost and you continue to limp along when there might be an opportunity to do something better.”

At the Canadian Wheat Board, there is not only a strong link between payroll and employees, but also between payroll, HR and finance, said Wiesenthal. It’s important for payroll to establish who their business partners are and work closely with them to make sure they are all on the same page, she said.

“Payroll is at an optimal vantage point for getting information in from all parties,” said Wiesenthal. “We can leverage the information and look at how we can do things better and we can discover a lot from that communication loop to enhance performance and efficiencies.”

Payroll is constantly encountering a variety of changes and it’s important to communicate these changes effectively to employees to maintain a strong, positive relationship. When the department encounters a legislative change, they should relay this information to the appropriate channels and make sure they are involved early in the employee communications process, said Isabel.

The communications should give  employees sufficient notice and explain why the change is being made, whether it’s due to legal requirements, cost-cutting or a “survival strategy,” said Callocchia.

There are many different ways to communicate the change depending on the resources and size of the company including lunch and learns, webinars, newsletters and video conferencing, she said.

The Canadian Wheat Board is currently going through a payroll change that’s part of a larger system change where pay will be delivered semi-monthly instead of bi-weekly, said Wiesenthal. Her team has been communicating the news through many department meetings, information sessions and emails.

“It’s a really big shift for employees,” she said. “But we’re giving them lots of notice and telling them why we’re doing it, so they might not like it but they understand the rationale behind it.”

As HR becomes more strategic, payroll and HR are being asked to work better together and payroll professionals are expected to be more comfortable with HR components such as employee relations, said Callocchia.

And, like Mirza, building employee relations can put the payroll practitioner at a greater advantage for future career opportunities.

“More and more payroll people are being asked to do HR type activities,” said Callocchia. “It can build your career and make you seen as more valuable and more key to the management team.”

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