The Power of HR and Payroll Support Roles

An hr and payroll employee

Sometimes you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a transformational leader with a different viewpoint who leads to lasting change in an organization—it’s even more inspiring when this applies to traditional “back-office” HR and payroll departments.

Years ago, I had that experience as a young payroll director at a prominent Wall Street brokerage house. While meeting with the CHRO during our weekly one-on-one, he asked two questions about the strategic value of HR and payroll support roles that certainly didn’t lead to a typical discussion:

  1. How can we leverage people data more broadly as a source of competitive advantage for the firm?
  2. How can we elevate HR and payroll service delivery so that all employees, managers, and external stakeholders see a clear difference?

We had discussed previously the many challenges and limitations regarding those two strategic priorities; however, the ideas floated this time were part of a larger vision.

The key theme: The HR/payroll function would no longer operate as a traditional “back-office” center of administration and customer service with occasional HR policy changes and advisory guidance to business leaders. Instead, the “way forward” was to meaningfully link payroll data and systems with HR operational data and systems and connect those to the broader business priorities, all while deploying the best technology platforms and tools to achieve the vision.

It seems obvious now, but at the time, it was a game-changing transformation that led to an integrated “HR Knowledge and Service Delivery Center.” It turned out to be one of the best opportunities of my career. I was hired to bring the different areas of HR and workforce management together, and along the way, I learned the true value of how a people-centric approach paired with data can inform the decisions we make in HR, payroll, and workforce management.

I learned the true value of how a people-centric approach paired with data can inform the decisions we make in HR, payroll, and workforce management.

Data insights from HR and payroll support are key

In the context of the new center’s vision, the HR team could generate valuable (but not always obvious) data insights about business risks, costs, and opportunities. For example, we could evaluate why a lower percentage of job offers were being accepted or trends around turnover and the potential reasons. Central to delivering these significant operational insights was an ability to build off payroll data, which was typically the most reliable source of people data.

These insights and examples provided more clear and complete responses to employee queries. In a way, this was my first experience with what is today’s most prominent HR theme: elevating the employee experience. As in the present day, it was logical to assume that a better employee experience helped the firm recruit and retain better talent, and ultimately, achieve a more engaged, productive, and committed workforce.

As the discussion between the CHRO and me concluded, we both agreed that the current team in the department’s traditional “back-office” or HR and payroll support roles would love this type of opportunity, if not journey: The motivation would be high to address any learning gaps quickly and the subject matter expertise and even technology acumen the team already possessed would ensure success. Plus, many of the ideas surfaced during this transformation effort had already been discussed within the group, but they hadn’t seen the light of day because the data and systems infrastructure in place was just too limiting.

Employees in traditional HR and payroll support roles can positively impact a business, and in many cases, lead business transformations.

A typical day in payroll would no longer be typical

This story, so to speak, is not about innovative HR technology and best-in-class HR processes. Those matter. But it’s more about how employees in traditional HR and payroll support roles can positively impact a business, and in many cases, lead business transformations. It’s a combination of their deep understanding of the operating environment, from process improvement opportunities to stakeholder needs and expectations, to where and how best-fit technology can make such visions a reality.

HR functions should naturally understand this about human potential given the right conditions. My CHRO certainly understood human potential, more than almost anyone: He was the late Ed Weihenmayer, and one of his children, Erik Weihenmayer, became the first totally blind athlete to successfully reach the top of Mount Everest. Erik also wrote the bestseller “The Adversity Advantage” after ascending several of the world’s other highest mountain peaks. He would come into the payroll department with his Seeing Eye dog just as the new initiative had commenced. It symbolized that a typical day in payroll would no longer be typical.

All the core functions performed within a corporate payroll department eventually experienced a noticeable improvement in efficiency, from pre-payroll cycle reconciliations to post-pay run reporting and data feeds. Add in the steady flow of employee and sometimes manager questions regarding items such as overtime wages or hours, pay rates, and paycheck deductions, and it was clear that there was a speed and confidence that had not existed prior.

This was largely achieved by trusting that the best-suited employees to elevate the employee experience were team members that would personally benefit from it. Similarly, those with the best perspectives on current operations and a “next-gen payroll and HR function” could bring all that knowledge to bear.

Strategic value is foundational

Indeed, with today’s capabilities and innovations around HR systems, complementary tools, and broad-based, business-integrated people data, the value of support roles is materially changing—for the positive. Strategic value is now foundational to many of these situations, and views (perhaps generalizations) made for decades are being upended. I’m grateful to Ed—and those with vision and confidence in their people—for kickstarting this movement and elevating the HR and payroll support role to the level it deserves.

If you need help finding that vision or choosing purpose for your organization, check out Better Together: The Shared Future for HCM and Workforce Management.