Benefits & Comp 6 min

Common Payroll Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

October 22, 2019

A smooth payroll process in your organization is like oxygen—when it’s there, you hardly notice it; when it’s missing, you can’t think about anything else. That makes payroll one of the least appreciated yet most important functions within a business. Payroll, when done well, can keep employees satisfied and help your organization stay safe from legal consequences. On the other hand, when payroll mistakes crop up, their impact can ripple across an entire company.

Fortunately, all of the most common payroll errors are easily avoidable with education, proper planning, and the right tools. To learn about these payroll mistakes and how to avoid or fix them, read on.

The 5 Most Common Payroll Mistakes

With a process as complex as payroll, there are numerous places where organizations can make mistakes. Here are some of the most common payroll errors to watch for in your company.

#1 Misclassifying Employees

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides benefits and protections, like overtime pay and minimum wage, for most employees under the law. Independent contractors, however, are not afforded these same protections. Likewise, exempt and nonexempt employees also have different legal rights. Some organizations slip up and misclassify their employees as independent contractors or as exempt.

Not only can misclassification deny an employee some important benefits and wages, it may also mean the government misses out on valuable tax dollars. If left unchecked, the resulting underpayment or overpayment can turn into a costly payroll error.

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#2 Miscalculating Pay

With overtime, commissions, deductions, PTO, and more, payroll admins have a lot to keep track of when it comes to calculating pay. For overtime wages, the general rule is 1.5 times an employee’s regular wage for any time worked beyond 40 hours in a workweek. However, your state may have different policies regarding overtime; your organization should always comply with the law that is more generous for the employee.

Poor time tracking capabilities can also contribute to miscalculated pay. If your company doesn’t have a reliable way to track employee hours or paid time off, then your chances of making a payroll overpayment or underpayment mistake skyrocket.

#3 Missing Payroll Deadlines

Timing is everything in payroll. But with so many steps in the payroll process, missing a key deadline is all too easy. Your employees count on your organization to deliver payment consistently and on time; failing to stick to a reliable schedule can damage employees’ trust and opinion of the company. Not to mention, many states have pay frequency requirements.

When it comes to payroll taxes, deadlines are no less important. Missing a tax deadline can cost your company a considerable amount with late fees, penalties, or even legal trouble. Knowing your timeline—both internal for paydays and external for taxes—is vital to a smooth payroll process.

When it comes to payroll records, you can never be too thorough.

#4 Neglecting to Send Out Tax Forms

The end of the year (and start of the new year) is a hectic time for payroll professionals. After a year of processing payments and taxes, organizations must send out all the necessary tax forms to employees. Employees need W-2 forms while independent contractors who earned $600 or more need 1099s. Failing to get the right forms to the right people in a timely manner isn’t just inconvenient for employees—it can also spell trouble for your company.

#5 Failing to Keep Complete Records

When it comes to payroll records, you can never be too thorough. The FLSA requires employers to keep three years’ worth of pay records. These records include hours worked, payment rates, payroll dates, and more. While this might sound like a lot of data, some states require even more, with records dating even farther back.

Not only does this data keep your organization safe in case of future audits, it also helps you run payroll more smoothly here and now. Without complete, updated records, you risk miscalculating pay, misclassifying employees, and more.

How to Avoid Payroll Errors

Avoiding or preventing each error listed above takes a variety of strategies, but we’ve included our top suggestions here. Incorporating these elements into your payroll process can help you catch errors before they happen, making payroll faster, easier, and more accurate.

Invest in the Right Tools

The best way to keep payroll mistakes from disrupting your organization? Invest in payroll software and an HRIS that get along. The right HRIS will manage and update important employee information, like wages, hours, account numbers, and withholdings, and then communicate those changes to your payroll system, eliminating the need for double entry.

At the same time, the right payroll software should sync with your HR system and automate the most time-consuming tasks. Payroll software makes it easy to run reports, file taxes, distribute pay stubs, and more.

Know Your Stuff

Many payroll errors are the result of payroll admins not having enough information, or not having the correct information. Laws and policies are always changing, and they can vary from state to state; it’s crucial for your payroll team to stay in the loop with current regulations for where your organization is located (especially if you have a national or global presence).

Doing some basic research (What’s the difference between exempt and non-exempt?) and double-checking your assumptions (Is this employee really classified correctly?) can go a long way toward avoiding payroll errors.

Run Reports Prior to Payroll

If you have access to payroll software, running a few key reports before processing payroll can help you catch and prevent mistakes as well. We suggest running the following reports to make sure all your check amounts are correct:

  • Deductions summary– This report provides a summary of all deductions on every employee, so you can double-check the amounts.
  • Payroll register–  This report allows you to see all payroll information in a summary format.
  • Cash requirement–  This report shows how much money your organization must have available in order to pay payroll, broken down by category like wages, taxes, deductions, etc.

Keep a Checklist

You can never go wrong with the tried-and-true checklist. Payroll admins have a lot to keep track of, even if they have software to support their processes. With a checklist, they can go through every step of the process every time, reviewing each piece and making sure everything is accurate.

If you make a payroll error, act as soon as you realize the mistake and report it to state and federal entities if necessary.

You may also want to keep lists of all new hires, all pay changes, all deduction changes, and other updates in one central location, organized by pay period. Then, when you’re working on payroll for that period, you can review each list to ensure all the changes made it into your system accurately.

How to Fix Payroll Errors

If you’ve already processed an inaccurate payroll, you should act as soon as you realize the mistake and report the error to state and federal entities if necessary. In some cases, your organization could face penalties and fees as a result of an error, and these will only loom larger the longer they remain unaddressed.

For most minor payroll errors, you can usually do one of the following:

  • Cancel the payroll immediately, make updates, and reprocess it
  • Run an additional, manual payroll with the necessary adjustments for only the affected employees
  • Make adjustments on the next payroll to counteract previous mistakes and get things back in balance

Conclusion

Being aware of the most common payroll mistakes is a great first step to avoiding them in your own organization and maintaining a smooth payroll process. And while running a seamless payroll may sometimes feel like a thankless job, it affects many other elements of the larger organization, like employee satisfaction and even company culture. Invest now in perfecting the payroll process so your company doesn’t pay for it later.

Tori Fica
Senior Copywriter

Tori Fica is a copywriter for BambooHR. Through research, analysis, and writing, she creates content to help HR professionals think and plan more strategically. Her focus is on taking complex ideas and in-depth research and turning them into clear, digestible pieces of content.