Why Payroll Certification Really Matters

There are many jobs in life where expertise is essential. You wouldn’t want an inexperienced cardiac surgeon, rocket engineer, or defense attorney; likewise, for your organization, having someone with payroll expertise is just as vital—because inaccurate payroll leads to disastrous consequences. A survey from The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated shows that 49 percent of American workers would start a new job search after experiencing only two problems with their paycheck. Payroll certification provides organizations with the assurance that you have the training needed to keep the payroll process timely and accurate as the world changes and the organization grows.

What is Payroll Certification?

The American Payroll Association is the national certification body for payroll specialists, representing more than 20,000 members. The association’s main goal is to provide payroll specialists with the knowledge and recognition they need to become certified payroll professionals.

The APA offers two levels of certification:


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Why is Payroll Certification Important?

Payroll certification courses play an essential part in career development for payroll professionals. Like any other employee, payroll professionals need to see that their company understands their contribution and that there’s room for growth in their career.

There are two different pathways to career development. Cassie Whitlock, director of HR at BambooHR, sums them up as “broad shoulders” and “deep expertise.” While certain employees can advance by taking a wider variety of responsibilities onto their broad shoulders, payroll is an area that requires a deep and expanding expertise. Think of it this way: broad-shoulders-style career development is possible for most HR generalists, thanks to the forgiving learning curve; however, there is no such mercy in payroll—one mistake can be extremely costly.

How can payroll professionals showcase their expertise in a way that present and future employers appreciate?

So how can payroll professionals showcase their expertise in a way that present and future employers appreciate? They can’t do it with a portfolio of their work, as financial information is private and protected by company and federal regulations. Payroll is also a reactive expertise—the only evidence of excellent payroll management is an absence of issues. And unless the people involved in the hiring or review process are payroll professionals themselves, it’s very difficult to provide examples of great payroll work in an interview.

Becoming a certified payroll professional is an effective shorthand for the quality of a payroll professional’s experience. A current payroll certification demonstrates an up-to-date knowledge of payroll law and best practice in a recognizable way. As your organization supports employees in their certification efforts, it demonstrates how much you value their essential contributions.

How Payroll Certification Fits in a Broader Payroll Strategy

Expertise works best when it’s in the right context. Having a certified payroll professional contributing to compensation decisions can make all the difference in strategies becoming reality. Do you plan to hire gig workers? You’ll need an expert to make sure your pay system is flexible enough to handle temporary pay. Are you planning to open an office in a different state? You’ll need an expert to handle a new set of rules and regulations.

Payroll software can automate tedious tasks and help with compliance. But there’s an old maxim in computer programming: garbage in, garbage out. Payroll software needs to account for tax laws at the federal, state, county, and sometimes city level. It also needs to account for overtime laws, exempt vs. non-exempt employees, and benefit deductions.

So even if you have the best, most intuitive payroll software on the market and a solid compensation plan for your organization, you still need professional human input to ensure the right information goes in and a smooth payroll comes out.

Looking for more compensation strategy? Check our guide for how to talk about pay!

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How to Become a Certified Payroll Professional

The APA offers payroll certification online through several series of virtual courses held throughout the year. The site also lists prequalification specifics for each certification level and provides resources to help achieve executive buy-in.

Many payroll software providers also offer payroll specialist certification for their own payroll systems. These courses can help payroll specialists who join organizations with a well-established payroll platform learn the ins and outs of the new system.