Payroll practitioner’s diary

Trials and tribulations in the payroll department

Talk to almost any payroll professional, and common themes emerge. Most didn’t choose a career in payroll. Most feel co-workers don’t understand how complex working in the payroll department can be. Most don’t feel fully appreciated and aren’t sure the organization understands their roles or that they can be strategic partners in the business.

Canadian HR Reporter talked with four payroll practitioners from across the country to find out what challenges they face in their day-to-day activities, how technology is helping or hindering them and how they think employees view the payroll department.

Judy Lynn Kay
Payroll lead (Canada)
Monsanto Canada Inc.

Payroll can be a bit of a juggling act. Just ask Judy Lynn Kay, payroll lead for Monsanto Canada Inc., who said the biggest challenge she faces in her day-to-day tasks is keeping all the balls in the air and trying to remain calm.

“We are dealing with employees’ money,” she said. “It is near and dear to their hearts. Each employee’s request or concern must be treated as if it is the only one we have that day.”

Things are generally good in the payroll department at Monsanto and she credits that to the organization’s understanding that payroll is more than just administrative tasks.

“In other organizations I have worked for, payroll was seen as an administrative function,” she said. “My current employer sees the payroll function as a major function of the business. They recognize payroll is among their biggest expenditures and that the payroll department plays an important role in managing the bottom line.”

But that doesn’t mean everyone in the organization gets it. She said some employees think working in the payroll department is easy.

“Employees sometimes mistakenly think getting them their cheque is as simple as keying in the data,” she said.

Kay, who has 25 years experience in payroll, handles payroll for about 300 employees in six provinces along with one other staff member. Monsanto’s payroll is processed by a third party, but all of the data entry and accounting functions are handled internally. Kay gave the technology she uses a passing grade — but just barely — and said it has a long way to go.

“The software fails to provide consistent, accurate data and relies very heavily on the client to ensure the program is in line with provincial legislation,” she said. “Multiple legislation seems to be a problem. I wish the payroll system provided easy, more varied reporting. As the respect for the payroll profession grows, so does the need to provide management with various levels of analysis and reports often at a moment’s notice.”

Aside from juggling multiple tasks and tackling technology headaches, one of the biggest frustrations for her is the lack of respect from other professions.

“It makes me uncomfortable to say this, but gaining the respect of other professionals has been a challenge,” she said. “I think I am still working on handling it and I try to educate others about the complexities of my profession.”

For those thinking about a career in payroll — or those already practising — she has some simple words of advice.

“Never break or bend the confidentiality entrusted to you. You know you are doing a great job if most of your co-workers do not know what position you hold.”

To keep on top of changes, she takes different types of training courses.

“I always attend a course at the end of the year that covers various topics,” said Kay. “You can not catch up on everything, but the year-end courses are an excellent opportunity to catch up.”

Sylvia Schock
Payroll administrator
Lakeland Mills
Prince George, B.C.

When an employee rings up the payroll department, the payroll practitioner just never knows what question is coming down the pipes.

In her 15 years in payroll, Sylvia Schock has fielded a number of interesting queries. But the one that stands out the most was a worker who asked if he could add his girlfriend onto his medical plan at the same time his wife was on it.

Schock and one other employee are responsible for paying Lakeland Mills’ 175 workers in British Columbia. The payroll function is handled entirely in-house, a setup that’s about to get a lot easier as Schock is in the middle of the implementation of new payroll software.

“Our office has been computerized for years and we are in the process of installing new software right now to update our old programs,” she said. “The payroll program we have right now is not very user-friendly.”

With the current software, anytime the payroll staff want to make a change to the system a computer programmer who works off-site has to be called. But under the new system the payroll staff will be able to fix their own problems and make their own changes, something she said will make the payroll department more efficient and able to diversify more.

Like most payroll practitioners, she struggles with getting co-workers to understand that payroll is more complex than it looks on the surface.

“There are a lot of people who have the notion that ‘payroll clerks only work every couple of weeks and produce cheques for those who work a full two weeks,’” she said. “It is difficult sometimes to make people understand that I do more than just print off paycheques. There is a lot of work that goes into producing those cheques and a lot happens after that. I’ve explained that I have taken courses and attended seminars to stay up to date and I don’t just ‘do cheques.’ Sometimes it is easier to not say anything, so I don’t.”

Donna Potter
Manager of payroll
Okanagan University College
Kelowna, B.C.

After 15 years in payroll, Donna Potter has yet to encounter what she calls a “big” problem while handling the pay for about 1,200 employees at Okanagan University College in Kelowna, B.C.

But there’s been a few challenges, particularly when it came to implementing new systems. Potter has been through two large payroll conversions while having to keep the legacy system running.

“It was very challenging to investigate, implement and provide training while keeping the home fires burning,” she said.

The school employs two clerks and a manager in the payroll department, and Potter said that while payroll is still mostly viewed as an administrative function on campus, that notion is slowly changing.

But there is still a misconception that “payroll has a magic button that will automatically create a paycheque or deposit with absolutely no lead time or departmental authorization,” she said.

Payroll work is highly legislated, sensitive and detailed work driven by endless deadline and zero tolerance for errors, she said.

“This can cause stress for some while others will thrive on it,” said Potter. “I think it is important for payroll practitioners to improve qualifications relating to accounting and human resources as payroll generally integrates with both areas and can report to either.”

The school uses an internal, integrated system to handle payroll and Potter said she’s happy for the most part with the system.

“The integrated system we use is designed in the U.S. and while the Canadian content is good, it could be improved,” she said. “Generally speaking the integration between modules — student, finance, budget and human resources — is good but it too could be improved.”

Laura Matheson
Payroll administrator
Nova Enterprises Ltd.
Truro, N.S.

Laura Matheson, payroll administrator at Nova Enterprises in Truro, N.S., said payroll in her organization is “mainly thought of as an administrative function that’s taken for granted unless something goes wrong.”

Matheson, who’s been in the field for seven years and handles pay for 125 workers at four locations across Nova Scotia, said employees have the misconception that payroll requires no special skills beyond the ability to simply enter data.

But beyond the day-to-day administrative tasks, payroll is playing a more strategic part in the organization by providing accurate numbers for budgeting purposes and ensuring the company complies with current legislation, she said.

Nova Enterprises Ltd. outsources its payroll to Ceridian. Ceridian is responsible for producing the paycheques and deposits, preparing government remittances, records of employment and producing third-party cheques for garnishments and retirement plans.

Internally Matheson produces manual cheques, manual records of employment, reconciles payments, tracks attendance, tallies manual time sheets, produces journal entries and posts payroll. She fields all payroll-related questions from staff, manages the benefits program, prepares job postings and produces reports for management as required.

To help keep current with legislative changes, Matheson turns to the Internet, the Canadian Payroll Association’s hotline and Ceridian. For professional development, she’s taken courses offered by the Canadian Payroll Association and Ceridian.

Like many payroll practitioners, Matheson didn’t plan for a career in payroll. She started off with Nova Enterprises Ltd. as an accounts payable clerk. As part of that job she was required to provide payroll backup. When the payroll clerk retired, Matheson slid into that position and hasn’t looked back.

“I thoroughly enjoy all aspects of working with payroll,” said Matheson. “Especially getting to know fellow employees I might not otherwise deal with. I am able to work independently, yet still interact with other departments. As far as I’m concerned, I have the ideal job.”

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