Creating a Payroll Knowledge Base


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“Ask yourself who uses what you do and how valuable to them is what you do.  Then ask yourself whether they recognise themselves as your customer.”  Anonymous

Note: I have attempted to eliminate usage of country specific names and terms for ease of reading by a global audience.

 A knowledge base, for those that haven’t seen one previously, is exactly what it sounds like: a base point where knowledge is stored, to be accessed by those who need to understand information, requirements, policies, procedures and so on.

If you are in a large organisation, there has probably been a great deal invested in the design and creation of an intranet to service as a knowledge base for all the business and support units.  Smaller organisations may not even have an intranet, in which case your knowledge base can be provided in print format in the form of Employee Handbooks, New Employee Packs, Information Handouts, Administrator & Manager Guides to Payroll and internal Payroll Operations Manuals.

Why bother?

Our first reason to bother with a knowledge base is to provide service excellence.  Organisations invest millions and go to extreme lengths to implement customer service policies and programs for their external customers.  These same organisations espouse strongly their commitment to their most valuable assets: their employees, but what level of human effort or monetary investment is contributed to providing decent customer service to internal customers?  For payroll teams, these internal customers are the employees you pay, the management you report to (hierarchically and the provision of actual reports) and the dealings you have with all other people that “touch” your payroll service.

You’ve all heard the maxims: Fore armed is forewarned; Knowledge is Power; You can’t manage what you don’t measure.  A good knowledge base will contribute to organisational effectiveness and work as a response to each of these maxims.

As you read through the article you will come to understand how a well thought out, constructive knowledge base, that is marketed well, can also significantly impact each of the following:

  • Building the payroll teams’ knowledge and capabilities
  • Improvement of payroll efficiency, compliance and integrity
  • Contribution to the minimisation of Error Rates
  • Provision of value added services
  • Empowerment of payroll team members, employees and participants in the payroll process
  • Provision of transparency in the payroll process
  • Contribution to the protection of intellectual property and business processes
  • Assisting in the building of  business relationships
  • Contribution to the credibility of the payroll process
  • Highlighting the complexity of the payroll process
  • Education of your customers on the importance of compliant data inputs
  • Reduction of your daily reactive fire fighting activities and a turning of the tide into pro-activity

Who are we supposed to serve with a Knowledge Base?

A knowledge base should service the payroll team, all contributors to the payroll process and our multiple customers including the employees we pay, the managers we provide reporting to and the other support units of the organisation including the Finance and Human Resources teams.  Depending on the size and diversity of the organisation, additional support units could include departments that specifically handle Workers Compensation, Corporate Governance, Statutory Taxation, Payroll Accounting, IT or Payroll Systems Administration and others.

For the benefit of simplicity, we will focus on our primary customers:  employees, managers and administrators of payroll information.

How complex does a Knowledge Base need to be?

Stick to the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle every time.  The less complicated a knowledge base is, the more it will be accessed and utilised.  The volume of content you place in it will be driven by the degree of complexity in each payroll or business and the extent of employee benefits the company provides.

What information could employees possibly want out of it?

Ask yourself what problems your employees commonly have.  What are their primary concerns and challenges in the payroll process?  How can you help?  You can build enormous credibility by pin-pointing and addressing your employees’ pain points.  The provision of information that benefits employees and assists them to make informed payroll decisions and transactions, shows that you are empathetic to them and focused on servicing them.

The first place to look for employee pain points is to analyse your most consistent payroll errors and queries and establish what the constants are.

If, for example, you are consistently baffled by the inability of employees to correctly complete a tax form, then this is a must have on your knowledge base.  In Australia, the tax file number (social security number in the US) declaration form has an information sheet attached explaining how to complete the form, but there are always the same issues presenting themselves by employees not completing the forms correctly.  Additionally, if an employee submits their form incorrectly, by law, we are to interpret it using the worst case scenario which can result in taxing the employee at the highest marginal rate.  Living by this rule is easy enough from compliance and processing perspective, but it causes great personal grief to employees, which is then imparted onto the payroll officer handling the aggrieved employees query.

This can be resolved simply, with the introduction of a document on your knowledge base titled “Understanding the Tax File Number Declaration”.  Within the document, an explanation of how the taxation will be applied by certain answers and what the implications will be of not providing a tax file number within the required time limit.  This simple task reduces so much grief and calls employees to action, as it is in their highest interest not to be taxed half of their pay.  I have seen in the US, it is common for employees to misunderstand the W2 and W4 forms, this can be resolved by explaining the difference between, and the importance of, the two forms.  If you need the explanatory note to be a little more “in your face”, attach it to the front of the relevant forms in the New Employee Packages or have it pop up online prior to them accessing the relevant online form.

The key to providing information that calls for action is to use minimal words, maximum impact and the strongest motivators.  Remembering that many people are visual beings, include pictures!  There’s not a lot you can do about the auditory beings, but technology might assist in that one day.

In Australia a few years back, salary packaging was extended by legislation, to all staff of hospitals and charitable organisations, in an attempt to counteract the low award wages and attract people to the industry.  The biggest issue that came out of this though for employees, was the impact the seemingly attractive salary packaging had on their student loans, child support, child benefits and any other welfare payments they may have been claiming.  Employees took up the salary packaging option without realising that it increased their assessable income for all of these other aspects of their lives.  Once the end of the financial year arrived and they started submitting their tax returns, all hell broke loose.  People were being assessed on their ordinary earnings, plus the grossed up fringe benefits and finding they had been overpaid social security payments and were underpaying student loans and child support.  These industries are full of university graduates and also sadly have a high percentage of welfare recipients, in comparison to other industries.  It was chaos.

To counteract this for the future, a guide titled “Understanding Salary Packaging” was introduced to explain these issues and each employee had to sign that they had read the guide prior to taking up salary packaging options.  In the guide, there were massive STOP signs and warning symbols to highlight the potential issues for them.  We provided little tips on how to circumvent future welfare or student loan debts, by explaining how to contribute extra tax to account for the salary packaging impacts.

Another constant query is new employees asking when they will be paid, which should be addressed in induction or orientation programs, but can be added to your knowledge base.

In your knowledge base, include explanations for employees on “what if”, “how to” and “what do I do” scenarios for the common pay queries:

  • What do I do if my pay is short
  • What do I do if I haven’t been paid
  • What do I do if I lose my pay card
  • How to change your bank details
  • How to apply for salary packaging
  • How to apply for leave (and leave payments in advance)
  • Why have you taken garnishees or child support out of my pay without telling me
  • How to complete your timesheet correctly (and preferably legibly)

The pay office is the first point of call invariably, and in most cases we have to redirect the employee back to their supervisor or bank or other area to establish some key facts first.  Minimise these queries, by including the steps they should take, such as talking to their supervisor about incorrect pays as the first step so they can ensure the timesheet was correctly submitted in the first place.

Incorrect bank account details can cause serious headaches and can be addressed with a simple explanation note on the bank details form, or by having employees attach a deposit slip or cancelled cheque to the bank form for verification.  When payments are rejected from bank accounts, it causes distress for employees and wastes valuable time that payroll officers could be utilising adding value to the payroll service.

Once you’ve established some vital information on your knowledge base that serves to eliminate pain points, go above and beyond and provide information that further empowers them, such as:

  • Contact details for the pay office, taxation departments, medical funds, superannuation providers, etc
  • Every single form an employee may need to access in their employment lifetime
  • Updates on legislative or procedural changes that directly affect them
  • New employee packages that explain what they need to know and do (and when they will get paid)
  • Nice to know information from superannuation funds, medical funds, employee share schemes, etc
  • If membership of any third party creditor comes with additional benefits, let the employees know (such as discount offers, insurance offers, etc)
  • Handy website links to government schemes or aide programs affecting your employees (in Australia: Paid Parental Leave, Lost Super, Centrelinks’ Emergency Assistance lines for employees suffering from environmental or personal emergencies and so on)
  • A listing of the coming years’ public holidays
  • Details of your Workplace Giving Program and why they should be a part of it
  • An invitation for feedback or ideas from your employees

What Information Would Managers Want?

Again, start with your pain points – yours and theirs.  Whatever causes grief, can be addressed by arming the right people with the right information.  From my experience, I have learned that these are the kinds of things that Business Managers want from payroll:

  • No noise or fuss (just get it done correctly, every time, and don’t cause me any fuss in the process)
  • A miraculous discovery of how to halve payroll costs (good luck with that one!)
  • Advance notice of any potential IR, ER, HR (and many more R’s) issues that may arise through payroll
  • Assurance that employees are paid compliantly
  • Assurance that the correct number of employees are being paid from the payroll system
  • Correct allocation of all costs associated with the payroll
  • Assurance that the correct amounts are paid for income tax, superannuation, payroll tax, workers compensation insurance, fringe benefits tax, etc
  • Assurance that correct termination entitlements are paid out to employees
  • To spend less time on payroll processing and payroll queries
  • To reduce the overall cost of payroll production
  • Accurate calculation and accumulation of leave liabilities
  • Timely reporting of significant dates (i.e. probation review expiries, special anniversary dates, etc)
  • Advance notice on legislative changes that will affect future payroll costs
  • Budgetary comparisons
  • Overtime, Absence and other payroll costs as a percentage of total payroll costs
  • Assistance with salary reviews via the simplest feedback system possible
  • Information of absenteeism that enables them to pinpoint people and favourite days and see the cost absenteeism is contributing to their bottom lines
  • Workers compensation reporting for submission of annual earnings data to insurance companies
  • Workers compensation reporting on highlights of current workers compensation payments
  • Key employee statistics (average age, years of service, mgt to production ratios, etc)
  • Payroll Issue or Error rates of business units (Name this report carefully in order to build business relationships)
  • If you are a Shared Services Business or Payroll Outsourcer, management want to identify ways to reduce the payroll processing fees (which you can counteract with brilliant service options to again increase them)
  • Effective head count reporting that provides:
    • an overview of the company divisional allocation
    • exact reporting of total employee number
    • alert management to non paid employees left sitting on the payroll
    • alert management to ghosts on payroll
    • highlight volume of new employees and terminations
    • show turnover rates

These are just a few of the things that management want from you.  All you need to do now is start answering these needs one by one.  Your goal is to understand the management teams’ WIFM – “What’s In it For Me” and create reports that are “decision drivers“.  If you haven’t already, learn about Business Dashboards and provide key metrics and statistics that management can easily interpret to know if action needs to be taken to implement improvements.

Talk to, and listen carefully to your management team and learn what information can be provided in value add reports that can drive their operating costs down.  If management discard your expertise at the outset, create the reports and deliver them anyway and managers worth their salt, who understand the numbers, will begin conversation themselves and your reports will come to have some impact.  Ensure you don’t send volumes of information out, as it won’t be welcomed.  Stick to short, sharp numbers and brief highlights of what the information is telling you (i.e.: Absenteeism in Department X is 78% higher than all other departments) to elicit calls to action from management.  The business should welcome your attempts to open discussion about improvement areas.  Word your highlights carefully, as you want to maintain and improve business relationships, not create enemies.

One major consideration in the gathering of data for management reports like these, is the ability of your payroll or HRIS system to extract the data easily and how you present the data.  If you know Microsoft Excel fairly well, you can create some great reports from pitiful payroll data extractions.

How Can We Serve Providers of Payroll Inputs With A Knowledge Base?

The key to providing a completely correct payroll service is the quality of the data inputs coming in to the process.  This information alone should be enough to convince you that the payroll team should partner with every contributor to the payroll process to ensure the quality of the inputs.

Help yourself by helping the administrators of payroll information to understand what the requirements are by giving them a guide that steps through the process from their perspective.  Outline the deadline requirements and explain in simple terms how it should be done.  Not everyone that processes timesheets for a business unit understands the complexities of payroll or industrial agreements.  They only know what they know, and that might not be enough to allow for a seamless payroll process.

Information in the “Administrators Guide to Payroll Processing” should also include helpful items such as:

  • Contact names and numbers of people they can reach for help
  • Payroll processing deadlines (including shut down periods and public holidays)
  • Frequently Asked Questions to enable them to handle simple payroll queries as the first point of contact for many employees
  • “How To” instructions on common issues or queries that they should be addressing
  • Identify common errors and omissions from administrators and let them know the impacts these have on the payroll process (nicely)
  • Any other information that impacts the quality data being delivered by them to the payroll team

What Other Information Would Our Customers Want?

To find out what your customers want to know, there are two simple steps to take.  Firstly, you ask them!  You can ask your employees, managers and other customers what information would help them and then work to provide it.

Sometimes, people do not really know what product or service they need, but have a problem that needs a solution, so secondly, you listen to them.  Listening to your customers should be a systematic, daily process that is built into your personality, let alone your daily functions.  One persons’ anguish or confusion could result in another valuable piece of information that many others could utilise.

Building a Knowledge Base for the Payroll Team

To achieve our end goal of providing a compliant, correct, on time payroll, we need to arm our Payroll Team with the knowledge they require to achieve that end goal.  So many payroll teams operate from disjointed processes that usually vary between payroll officers.  They’ve collected bits and pieces over time and invariably the loss of a payroll officer from the team also results in a loss of valuable knowledge of the intricacies of the process.

To ensure the preservation of organisational knowledge and the competence of your payroll team as a whole, invest your time in collecting, documenting and publishing vital information such as:

  • Documented payroll processes, checklists and deadlines
  • Orientation or induction program contents
  • Master forms used in the payroll process
  • Policies and Procedures relating to payroll processing
  • Legislation and Employment Agreements/Industrial Instruments that relate to your organisation
  • How To Guides (How to Calculate Tax on Termination, How to Pay Upon Death of an Employee, etc)
  • Tax rates and calculators that you need to perform all of your tasks with
  • Links to helpful sites that provide additional information
  • Answers to everything they need to know to serve your customers at their best

How Do We Actually Get People to Start Using the Knowledge Base?

Once you’ve created your knowledge base, the next step is to ensure you drive people to use it.  You have to promote it and refer people to it regularly…  If people ring with questions, you can refer them to the knowledge base on the intranet (or a document that you can email them) and walk them through it.  Over time, this will encourage people to use the knowledge base as their first point of call, until the time comes when your queries start with this conversation – “I’ve just searched the knowledge base and I couldn’t find any information on …”

Encourage your own team to utilise the knowledge base by eliminating all other sources of personal notes and individual processes and holding your payroll teams’ knowledge in the central knowledge base (in print or online format).  Every time someone has a question, a chorus of voices should either say “It’s in the knowledge base!” or “That needs to be in the knowledge base!”

Let’s Get Started Then…

To assist those of you following this series, I’ve opened a conversation on the Linkedin group “The Professional Payroll Manager” and welcome questions, comments or suggestions on the discussion board, so we can all work together to improve our global payroll world.

If you have any questions you would like to raise personally, please email Louise Vidler at The Professional Payroll Manager.

© 2012 Louise Vidler T/As The Professional Payroll Manager.  All rights reserved.

All materials contained on this web site not otherwise subject to copyright of other parties are subject to the ownership rights of Louise Vidler T/As The Professional Payroll Manager. Louise Vidler T/As The Professional Payroll Manager authorises you to make a single copy of the content herein for your own personal, non-commercial, use while visiting the site. You agree that any copy made must include the Louise Vidler T/As The Professional Payroll Manager copyright notice in full. No other permission is granted to you to print, copy, reproduce, distribute, transmit, upload, download, store, display in public, alter, or modify the content contained on this web site.

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One Comment to “Creating a Payroll Knowledge Base”

  1. Very interesting information!Perfect just what I was looking for!

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