“Exciting, frustrating and fulfilling”

A peek inside the mind of a payroll professional

Canadian HR Reporter talked with a number of practitioners across the country to take the pulse of payroll. A number of common themes emerged. Technology has drastically changed the world of payroll over the last decade, and expectations on the department are much higher now. Payroll professionals are still fighting to come out of the dark, but are getting more and more recognition for the work being done. What follows is a glimpse inside the minds of payroll practitioners.

Frank Lilley
Co-ordinator of Payroll Operations
11 years experience in payroll

KEEPING payroll on the radar screens of senior management isn’t an easy task, but it’s a key factor in ensuring payroll has strong support, according to Frank Lilley, co-ordinator of payroll operations at Petro-Canada.

“I am fortunate that payroll has strong organizational awareness and support (at Petro-Canada),” he said. “This means most of my time is spent maintaining awareness of changes to and from payroll and communicating these changes where appropriate. We get pretty good support and people know the value of what we do.”

Lilley, whose department of seven payroll professionals is responsible for the payroll of about 4,200 Petro-Canada employees, focuses on ensuring the department maintains this high profile and thinks more payroll professionals should be doing this.

“It’s a two way street,” he said. “Payroll professionals need to get out more and build awareness of what they do and build relationships. You’re in charge, you can influence and make a positive change. Some people (in payroll) give up, and say nobody listens. But over time, there’s more and more awareness of what we do.”

He lists keeping up with legislation, tracking changes internally in the organization and technology as the biggest challenges facing him today.

“That requires us to constantly manage corresponding changes to our processes and software,” he said. “This includes spending time on internal change management and preparing the organization for changes we are making.”

Technology is playing a crucial role in payroll, and Lilley said keeping pace can be a challenge, albeit an extremely important one.

“Payroll software is very powerful and does much more than it used to in a lot less time,” he said. “But there are always software upgrades, the need for clear documentation and backup training and, most critical, is to retain the staff who understand what the software can and cannot do.”

One of the keys is keeping the technology as simple as possible, which it turn keeps the costs down.

“There’s a lot of good software out there now. If you’re smart, you use as much of the functionality it comes with instead of customizing it.” Lilley said heavy customization makes the system less flexible and costlier to maintain.

Besides just assisting with day-to-day payroll activities, technology is playing an important role in giving employees more access to information. In the last two years, Petro-Canada has moved all of its employees to direct deposit. Staff can now access payroll information via the company’s intranet and pay stubs are delivered electronically, something Lilley said has been a real success.

“Every employee has a password, and they can log on and look at all their personal information. They can make changes and get their pay statement there. It has saved us some work, and gives employees the ability to have access to their data whenever they want.”

Lilley, who is heavily involved with the Canadian Payroll Association and sits on its federal government regulations advisory council that meets with CCRA and HRDC three times a year, thinks payroll professionals have a lot to look forward to.

“Payroll professionals are becoming more confident and are beginning to realize the power they have to be positive change agents in their organizations,” he said. “It is a very challenging and satisfying field to be in. There is constant change from all directions, and that makes it exciting, frustrating and fulfilling all at the same time.”

Donna Oatman
Payroll and Benefits
Trudell Medical Ltd.
London, Ont.
25 years experience in payroll

PAYROLL professionals don’t often get a lot of recognition, unless something goes wrong. But that’s alright with Donna Oatman, the payroll and benefits co-ordinator for Trudell Medical Ltd.

“The nature of payroll is confidential, so it is often a function that is performed in quiet confidence behind-the-scenes. Every person in the company from the factory worker to the president requires a pay cheque and so payroll plays a vital role in the daily operation of an organization,” she said. “You derive a great deal of satisfaction knowing that all of your co-workers are paid correctly and on time.”

Oatman, a payroll veteran with 25 years under her belt, said she’s seen a lot of changes in that time, especially in the role technology plays in day-to-day operations.

“The technological advances have been astounding, making the gathering and reporting of information much easier,” she said. But, this doesn’t mean technology has made her job any easier.

“I still have to know the legislative rules and regulations and how to calculate a payroll cheque,” she said. “What technology has done is significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to process a payroll, enabling me to provide management with their labour reports quickly. It has also significantly cut down on the data entry required, and with electronic funds transfer I no longer have to wait for someone to sign pay cheques and distribute them.”

Troubleshooting problems can be a bit of nightmare as well. Over the years, Oatman has worked with a number of in-house, off-the-shelf and outsourced payroll packages and she said the technical issues never go away.

Another kink in the chain comes in the form of not getting documentation to set up a new hire, or terminate an employee, in a timely manner.

Keeping up with legislation is a never-ending challenge for all payroll practitioners, something Oatman said anyone who’s thinking about a career in payroll needs to keep in mind.

“I issue cheques in eight provinces and the U.K. for 12 companies using 24 business numbers under our corporate umbrella, so keeping up to date with changing government legislation is a constant challenge,” she said. “Our goal has always been to pay an employee correctly and on time. To accomplish this, you should be committed to life-long learning. You don’t have to know all the answers, but you do have to know where to get them.”

Oatman keeps her wits about her by staying organized and keeping her sense of humour.

“I am responsible for ensuring that employees in 12 very different companies get paid correctly and on time,” she said. “It is quite common to get a last minute change to the payroll just as you are about to run the final for the period, so it is important to keep a sense of humour.”

In the future, Oatman said payroll will start to play an increasing role in operations.

“Ten years ago, almost all payroll practitioners reported to the finance department of a company. Today, a lot of my colleagues, myself included, report to human resources. Payroll practitioners are now taking on a much larger role in the administration of benefit and pension plans and so deal with employees on almost a daily basis answering questions about these plans.”

Raymonde Fortuné
Payroll Supervisor
Caisse de depot et placement du Québec
23 years experience in payroll

FOR Raymonde Fortuné, working in payroll is a lot like working in the kitchen.

“It’s exciting. The payroll service is my spaghetti sauce,” he said. “I know exactly what I put in, day after day.”

Fortuné, the Montreal-based payroll supervisor for Caisse de depot et placement du Québec, a major financial institution, thinks recent changes in how payroll is viewed within the organization make the job a lot more rewarding than it’s been in the past.

“We get more prestige,” he said. “We have time to be a professional (because) technology does the routine work for us.”

But that doesn’t mean technology is payroll’s saviour, either. “Technology is necessary,” he said. “We need to be up to date, but sometimes it’s frustrating because the payroll department is the last place where the head boss wants to put money.”

Time saved through tecnology is used for professional development, taking payroll seminars and networking with other colleagues in the field, Fortune said.

But he also talked candidly about some of the downsides of working as a payroll practitioner.

“On Friday afternoon, when everbody is relaxing, talking about the weather and weekend activities, payroll isn’t done yet,” he said. “I still have to finish it.”

And while payroll has more prestige, Fortune echoed the concern that plagues the industry.

“If there is a mistake, everybody knows who I am,” he said. “If not, payroll doesn’t exist.”

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