7 common payroll risks for small to midsize businesses

Vatsal Thakkar, CPA
May 6, 2024

If your company has been in business for a while, you may not pay much attention to your payroll system so long as it’s running smoothly. But don’t get too complacent. Major payroll errors can pop up unexpectedly — creating huge disruptions costing time and money to fix, and, perhaps worst of all, compromising the trust of your employees.

For these reasons, businesses are well-advised to conduct payroll audits at least once annually to guard against the many risks inherent to payroll management. Here are seven such risks to be aware of:

  1. Inaccurate recordkeeping. If you don’t keep detailed and accurate records, it will probably come back to haunt you. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires businesses to maintain records of employees’ earnings for at least three years. Violations of the FLSA can trigger severe penalties. Be sure you and your staff know what records to keep and have sound policies and procedures in place for keeping them.
  2. Employee misclassification. Given the widespread use of “gig workers” in today’s economy, companies are at high risk for employee misclassification. This occurs when a business engages independent contractors but, in the view of federal authorities, the company treats them like employees. Violating the applicable rules can leave you owing back taxes and penalties, plus you may have to restore expensive fringe benefits.
  3. Manual processes. More than likely, if your business prepares its own payroll, it uses some form of payroll software. That’s good. Today’s products are widely available, relatively inexpensive and generally easy to use. However, some companies — particularly small ones — may still rely on manual processes to record or input critical data. Be careful about this, as it’s a major source of errors. To the extent feasible, automate as much as you can.
  4. Privacy violations. You generally can’t manage payroll without data such as Social Security numbers, home addresses, birth dates and bank account numbers. Unfortunately, possessing such information puts you squarely in the sights of hackers and those pernicious purveyors of ransomware. Invest thoroughly in proper cybersecurity measures and regularly update these safeguards.
  5. Internal fraud. Occupational (or internal) fraud remains a major threat to businesses. Schemes can range from “cheating” on timesheets by rank-and-file workers to embezzlement by those higher on the organizational chart. Among the most fundamental ways to protect your payroll function from fraud is to require segregation of duties. In other words, one employee, no matter how trusted, should never completely control the process. If you don’t have enough employees to segregate duties, consider outsourcing or hiring a fractional CFO.
  6. Legal compliance. As a business owner, you’re probably not an expert on the latest regulatory payroll developments affecting your industry. That’s OK; laws and regulations are constantly evolving. However, failing to comply with the current rules could cost you money and hurt your company’s reputation. So, be sure to have a trustworthy attorney on speed dial that you can turn to for assistance when necessary.
  7. Tax compliance. Employers are responsible for calculating tax withholding on employee wages. In addition to deducting federal payroll tax from paychecks, your organization must contribute its own share of payroll tax. If you get it wrong, the IRS could investigate and potentially assess additional tax liability and penalties. That’s where we come in. For help conducting a payroll audit, reviewing your payroll costs and, of course, managing your tax obligations, contact us.

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