Career Paths in the Payroll Domain


From cutting-edge technology to executive decision-making, the payroll domain promises no shortage of opportunities and challenges.

There’s a stereotype that payroll administrators are number-crunchers, working behind the scenes on the nuts and bolts of the pay process as the rest of their organisation does the ‘important’ work of delivering core services. While there’s obviously some truth to that notion, modern payroll goes far beyond simple calculations, tax reporting, and the delivery of pay: in fact, payroll administrators work at the heart of their organisations, addressing a spectrum of challenges every day. Similarly, payroll careers take place in every sector of every industry – and in every corner of the world, and send employees on exciting trajectories, from entry-level positions, to the highest levels of executive management.

If you’re thinking about taking your first steps into payroll, now is the time to start exploring where your career might take you, what kind of skills you’ll need, and what kind of roles you can expect to perform along the way…

Why Payroll?

Payroll careers holds plenty of professional promise – but perhaps the key advantage of the field is that it is a crucial necessity in every corner of the working world. Businesses of every shape and size need to build a payroll solution that suits their needs, and therefore need to fill their payroll positions with the best possible employees. An effective payroll is a precursor to business growth and success – good employers understand this, and structure their payroll deployments accordingly to reward and promote their staff

With all that in mind, as a payroll employee you should expect to grow and develop in your role. Payroll challenges change on a regular basis, and serve to enhance administrators’ innate skills, and force them to learn new ones. Payroll career opportunities await across the horizon – in both domestic and international contexts – meaning your career path can be as narrow or as broad as your ambition allows.

Payroll: Duties & Responsibilities

For the uninitiated, payroll might be described as simply the process of paying employees each month – but this only captures a fraction of what the field involves. In addition to delivering pay accurately and on time, payroll employees must contend with a vast array of regulatory and technical issues. Broadly, payroll duties and responsibilities cover:

  • Administration & record-keeping: Recording and logging work hours, sick pay, overtime, and so on, for the employee population.
  • Calculation: Calculating employee salaries, and withholding tax and social security contributions during each pay cycle.
  • Reporting: Reporting and remitting tax and social security to the relevant authorities.
  • Customer Service: Engaging with employee questions and queries regarding the pay process.
  • Technical Expertise: Training with and utilising the software and other tech-tools.
  • Communication: Communicating with, and briefing, colleagues and other employees – at every level of business – regarding the pay process.
  • Compliance: Training to maintain compliance with new legislation and compliance requirements.

Beyond the practical duties and responsibilities of payroll, it’s worth pointing out that the role itself is frequently challenging and unpredictable. Payroll employees must work under pressure, and to strict deadlines, every month, to ensure their colleagues’ pay is delivered – while at the same time observing the long list of payroll regulations that govern the process. Accomplishing this task consistently requires a range of special skills, and not least talents for communication, creative thinking, and problem solving.

Payroll Background & Qualifications

Like any aspect of modern business, payroll careers need to be built on solid foundations – which means thinking about qualifications. Don’t assume payroll is a field which demands an ability in numeracy over all else: the job requires a broad spectrum of skills, talent and knowledge – and no single employee could ever tick all the boxes. To give your career a head-start, however, experience and qualifications in the following areas – at any academic level – can help you climb the payroll ladder:

  • Maths
  • Accounting
  • Business
  • Management
  • IT/Communications
  • Law

Supplementing any academic achievement, should be a range of personal skills and talents which make candidates suitable for payroll. Practically, recruiters might look for those candidates expressing conscientiousness, diligence, reliability, and a close attention to detail – so don’t rule yourself out if you feel your academic background isn’t as specific as you want it to be.


It’s unlikely that entry-level payroll positions will require any specialised industry accreditation or certification, but as you progress in your career, those things will become more and more important. Fortunately, there are plenty of options when it comes to payroll accreditation, with established industry bodies offering training in every international territory. Notable institutions include the UK’s Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals, and the American Payroll Association.

Exploring Your Career

Your payroll career has the potential to be a long and rewarding one – but to succeed you’ll need to dedicate some thought about where you want it to take you. From a broad perspective, there are plenty of routes up the payroll career ladder – all of which may involve the following positions:

  • Payroll Administrator: Most payroll employees will begin their careers as administrators. A general entry-level, administrative position with prospects for advancement.
  • Payroll Assistant: A position with more focus on addressing the challenging aspects of the payroll process. Payroll Assistants have an expanded technical role, and may be responsible for directing colleagues or dealing with employee queries, and pay errors.
  • Payroll Technician: The payroll process involves a variety of technological tools – from integrating software platforms, to interacting with tax authorities.  Payroll technicians specialise in the technical aspects of the field, and may be skilled in IT and communications.
  • Payroll Specialist: Similarly, payroll specialists will hold specific experience and expertise in a single aspect of the field – this expertise may be in global tax law, employee mobility, pensions, and so on.
  • Payroll Manager: Responsible for their colleagues or their team, and the wider payroll process, payroll managers fulfil a leadership role and represent an interface between the department and senior management.
  • Payroll Director: A high-level position, Payroll Directors will possess a wealth of experience in the field and be involved in policy decisions.
  • Payroll Consultant: Experienced payroll employees may wish to offer their expertise to private business interests, and be able to set up as independent contractors.

Expanding Horizons

Payroll career progression brings challenges and opportunities at every level – but it also imparts a great deal of professional flexibility. From a practical perspective, experienced payroll employees will develop a set of skills which makes them suitable for a range of ‘adjacent’ fields, and able to pursue an HR or accountant career path – or any role with a professional profile which matches their time in payroll.

Alternatively, payroll skills can be exported to the international business landscape, where growth industries need skilled administrators to handle the challenges of global expansion. The increasing trend of payroll outsourcing reflects this potential: international business growth means employers must find a way to address an increased payroll burden quickly – and an associated urgency for compliance expertise.

Author bio: Sandra Sommerville

With 18 years of experience in HR compliance and senior management, including roles in the education and food retail industries, Sandra Sommerville is now Group Human Resources Manager for activpayroll. Sandra works to drive business growth by developing professional talent and supporting colleagues, and holds expertise in a spectrum of fields: from data protection and customer service, to dispute resolution and succession planning.


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