7 Things to Look for When Hiring a Payroll Specialist

By Robert Half on July 13, 2018 at 11:00am

Candidates for payroll specialist positions come with varying skills, expertise and work history. They also work in different roles, from entry-level payroll clerk to payroll administrator and payroll supervisor.

As a manager, you know you need operational support staff to process payroll, distribute paychecks, prepare statements and ensure governmental compliance. But as you scroll through the job postings and resumes, you may wonder about the best practices for finding payroll professionals, the key interview questions to ask and what, specifically, you need to look for when you’re filling these roles.

What are the key attributes of a payroll specialist?

Education and experience may be clearly defined, but what about other qualifications? Here are seven key features to look for when hiring a payroll specialist.

1. Payroll certifications

The American Payroll Association (APA) offers two types of certification: the Fundamental Payroll Certification (FPC) and the Certified Payroll Professional (CPP). The FPC is for entry-level staff, and the coursework for this certification gives a thorough introduction to this field. FPC holders are ideal candidates as payroll clerks or other mid- to entry-level positions.

For managerial positions and more complex payroll roles, look for candidates with a CPP. This advanced certification requires previous experience in the field and in-depth knowledge of core concepts such as employment taxes, employee benefits and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). CPP holders have also demonstrated their knowledge of paycheck calculations, payroll systems and payroll administration.

2. Payroll software experience

Most payroll platforms are complex. There can be quite a bit of variation from one system to another, and those skills aren’t always transferable. For example, a person with extensive experience in ADP Workforce Now may not be comfortable with Kronos.

In an ideal world, it’s better to seek candidates with direct experience in your department’s particular software rather than those who might need in-depth training to get up to speed. But because hiring in this field is highly competitive, it pays to consider candidates who haven’t worked with your company’s particular platform but show an aptitude for learning new software.

Find out more about the positions we place in payroll.

3. Other software skills

Beyond ADP, Kronos, Workday or Intuit, look for knowledge in a variety of other software. These must-have programs include Microsoft Office, especially Excel, Word and Outlook. Some payroll experts’ roles overlap with accounting, especially in smaller businesses, making proficiency in QuickBooks or Quicken an asset. And of course, because so much of reporting and payment processing has moved online, your new staff member should be comfortable with cloud technology.

4. Understanding of compliance

The regulatory landscape surrounding payroll and benefits is complex. Besides FLSA, there’s the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA), Affordable Care Act (ACA), data protection rules and a host of state and city ordinances to consider. While payroll software platforms can help you stay compliant, they’re not foolproof. The best protection is to have staff who understand the rules and know how to put them into practice. At the interview stage, ask candidates questions about compliance and gauge their level of familiarity with the recent legislation.

5. Attention to detail

Payroll staff members can’t afford to make mistakes. For some roles in the company, you can overlook minor errors such as typos in a resume or a failure to follow the application’s instructions. But when you’re assessing payroll candidates, their attention to detail is paramount. Make this a non-negotiable attribute.

6. Customer service abilities

Payroll’s clients may be internal, but your team still needs a finely tuned customer service mindset. Payroll specialists should provide prompt and courteous responses to phone and email queries. They should be able to offer assistance when employees have trouble navigating the self-service portal. A dedication to customer service includes the related traits of confidentiality, diplomacy and problem solving.

Ask interview questions that delve into candidates’ customer-service orientation. Examples include: “How do you deal with an employee who’s angry about garnishments?” and “Would you say you’re more of a numbers person or a people person?”

7. Analysis and data skills

Software systems handle functional and routine work for most finance teams, which frees up people to spend more time on data analysis and business strategy. And this comes just in time. Today’s accounting and finance teams are actively involved in researching and evaluating new systems and software, collaborating with IT on final purchases, and implementation. It’s true in payroll, too. That’s why your ideal hires are professionals with expertise in payroll and technology. Future-proof your team by bringing in people with a background in or aptitude for working with data.

These seven attributes are not etched in stone, and your company may have other requirements, such as knowledge of multistate payroll. Use this list to help you hone in on your ideal payroll specialists, and then make a job offer they can’t refuse.

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