A current line of thinking is that Payroll is a risk to have as an in-house function; some organisations have experienced problems when their regular Payroll person has been off sick for any significant period of time.

Instead of re-distributing the relevant FTE by employing two people each doing half time with an agreement to cover for the other, they look to outsource the Payroll, leaving any queries to be dealt with by HR. This of course can be an even bigger risk than the original problem, as Payroll is a complex subject that cannot be dealt with by looking up the answer in a handbook; the IPP qualification is a rigorous one to obtain.

In his excellent article, Shafiq Lokhandwala of NuView Systems Inc  averred that IT was from Mars and HR from Venus, highlighting the different type of approach and thought processes deployed by people from those different functions.

Taking that as inspiration, it is perhaps time to look at another divide that is not readily identified -except on the ground- that that exists between HR and Payroll people.

For some unknown reason, most managements seem to lump the two functions together, perhaps understandably if they share the same piece of software - rather like saying that Marketing and IT belong together because they share the same photocopier.In fact, they are quite disparate, both in what they do, and the type of people who work in them.Take Payroll; it pays people, yes, but its output is destined for the Finance department as a series of figures in the General Ledger. HR on the other hand has a rather less well-defined output, but it broadly should end up in the hands of Operational and Strategic management.

HR people tend to be rather unstructured, and not particularly well-organised. The changing nature of their day often demands that priorities are re-scheduled, causing meetings to be cancelled or overrun. There is a constant traffic of varied enquiries from all levels of organisation, and all set to a continuous backdrop of administration tasks. I’m not saying that this is an ideal scenario for HR, but it’s what I have come to recognise over 30 years of observation.

Payroll practitioners cannot afford to be unorganised. They have very strict deadlines to meet, and there is virtually no margin for error. In this way, they become very structured in their dealings with people and issues, and assiduous in their attention to detail. When working in close proximity to HR, they must be constantly wondering how anything in that department can possibly work!

Payroll people are naturally cautious and conservative about change and new methods for the reason that changes can create running problems, and even the smallest problem is magnified immensely when an employee spots that there is an error on their payslip. Contrast this, then, to HR’s widely recognised propensity for fads and adopting the latest management theories.

Payroll skills are “hard” skills, those of HR are somewhat “softer”. A clear demarcation of territory is that Payroll’s objectives are well-defined, inflexible and repetitive in their nature, whereas those of HR departments are a lot vaguer, more diffused and immensely more difficult to measure or monitor. Payroll people tend to be more at home with software and spreadsheets than their counterparts in HR, and this is an area that all HR professionals will have to address and quickly.

I am often amazed at the skills gap in these areas.However, there’s no denying that all jobs need people skills, and it’s true to say that both sets of professionals exhibit these in abundance, this being one of the few common strands between them.

So, before you herd Payroll and HR together, or mentally consign them as the same thing: think again!