Paymaster Magazine

Five “must have” attributes to look for when recruiting your payroll professional

Back in the early 1980’s, when I was subjected to the recruitment process, I was asked a few basic questions such as: “Can you use a calculator?” and “Can you look up tax tables and do you know how to fill in forms?” No prior experience was required. Moreover, very little training was required.

Once I was hired, not much new training was provided either. Within that particular HR department that I worked, salary and taxation administration consisted merely of the calculating of normal working hours, employee rates and overtime hours that were subsequently captured on employees’ payslips. Tax rates and deductions were looked-up on printed tax tables. I simply had to add up (and/or subtract) the relevant figures in order to determine an employee’s “net pay”. That was a long time ago! How times have changed since then.

Recently I was yet again faced with recruiting an employee. Here is my trusted list of five “must have” attributes for the payroll professional that I was looking to hire.

I describe these attributes in no particular order of importance.

Computer literacy

For many, computer literacy may seem like a given — a basic attribute that all applicants must surely carry with them you may be thinking. No so however.

Not everyone knows how to manage large files in Microsoft (MS) Excel or, how to accurately search for a particular file on a server. An applicant that has attended an advanced MS Excel course does not necessarily imply that they are proficient at Excel.

Consequently, when engaged in the recruitment process, start with exploring the  basics of computer literacy and incrementally move on to the next step. Computer literacy is a skill (i.e. requirement) that you can easily assess by getting the job-applicant to take a test. Design your own test that concentrates on the Excel proficiencies that you are specifically looking for. Alternatively, for a generic-type MS Excel assessment, you can easily source one from the Internet.

For the payroll department in particular, I believe that the minimum requirement for a payroll professional is to be proficient at pivot tables and executing “VLOOKUP” functions. Disregard this requirement at your own peril! An employee who does not possess this particular computer literacy skill (i.e. MS Excel proficiency) is going to require considerable time, money and training before they meet the required minimum standard for your payroll department.

Recruitment tip: take time to set-up a suitable customised test. Alternatively, source a generic test from the internet.

Legal knowledge

Legal know-how is easily transferred (taught) to new payroll professionals. Many of the latest payroll software applications have legal compliance variables built-in to its relevant modules. For example, for specific earnings (or deductions), many payroll software applications do not allow the deduction of miscalculated tax rates or the use of incorrect tax codes. Nonetheless, it’s always a decided advantage if a job-applicant is able to verify the accuracy of your payroll software’s automated tax calculations.

Recruitment tip: seek to determine whether the job-applicant can demonstrate a good working knowledge of the laws and taxation regulations applicable to payroll-related calculations.

Analytical skills

By “analytical skills” I am referring to the job-applicant’s ability to intuitively recognise trends and patterns embedded within payroll data-sets. This impacts the job-applicant’s subsequent ability to formulate insightful thoughts and ideas stemming from these trends and patterns. It’s vital that job-applicants are screened for their ability to scrutinise payroll-data by allowing them to demonstrate their ability to recognise where possible problems and issues lie within the data.

Recruitment tip: closely linked with analytical skills is a job-applicant’s ability to give every bit of attention to the finer details. Be sure to test for this by allowing the applicant to take a suitable customised test (or source a generic test for them to write from the internet).

Strength of character

By strength of character I mean: can the job-applicant ‘stand their ground’? In other words, will the job-applicant become a trustworthy payroll professional who confidently assumes a gatekeeper role for your company policy, as well as for the laws of the country? There are many ways of assessing this: for example, if you subject the applicant to certain pressure-scenarios during the interview, assess whether the applicant easily changes his/her mind? Ultimately, the prospective payroll professional needs to assertively say “yes” (or “no”) whenever the situation calls for a decisive unwavering answer.

Recruitment tip: using unique scenarios that are relevant to your own organisation, emulate pressure-situations for the job-applicant.


Payroll professionals need perseverance. In the modern-day organisation numerous tasks have to be done well, within a deadline. Without perseverance, the payroll professional will be unable to finish important tasks that are oftentimes lengthy and tedious to complete. Ultimately, it’s for you to assess whether your future payroll professional will stay to the end. In other other words, will he/she complete a specific time-critical task within the deadline set for them. When it comes to the job of the payroll professional, they have to be willing (and able) to go to the end of the road.

Recruitment tip: you need to determine (in advance) whether the job-applicant has the ability to persevere or not. This can be done in an exciting and novel way. Be sure to conduct additional online research when planning for this component of the recruitment process.

To conclude,  this list is by no means exhaustive. I acknowledge that there are numerous additional skills (and personality traits) that go into the making of a truly amazing payroll professional. When recruiting your payroll professional, this however is where the journey starts. I am certain that these five “must have” attributes are core (and central) to being able to suitably fulfil the role of payroll professional for any modern-day business.


Adrian Baillie-Stewart

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