Getting your head around small business payroll

Starting to employ people? Here’s your introduction to the basics of pay, deductions, and dealing with the tax office.

Small business payroll being done on a phone

What does payroll mean for small business?

At a basic level payroll is giving with one hand and taking with the other. You need to:

  • pay your employees the right amount at the right time, every time (according to their contract and in line with employment law)
  • make accurate deductions from their pay for things like tax and retirement

As you can imagine, there are a lot of rules around payroll. You have to comply with a lot of government requirements.

Find out how Xero payroll software can simplify tasks and make compliance easier.

What’s involved in payroll compliance?

To comply with government regulations around payroll, you must:

  • make accurate payments and deductions
  • provide your employee with a detailed payslip that shows what you’ve done
  • file and pay taxes on time
  • pay other deductions – such as retirement contributions – to the right places
  • hold onto payroll records for at least seven years

For this guide, we'll assume you know how to work out your employee's pay. We'll take you through deductions and reporting requirements.

What are payroll deductions?

Deductions are amounts of money you take from your employee's earnings before paying them. Deductions cover things like:

  • contributions to employee retirement schemes
  • employee income tax, and taxes on benefits
  • payments such as child support

Your employees might also have arranged for deductions to come directly from their pay for additional healthcare insurance, retirement schemes, or charitable donations. You can learn more about these deductions – including the order you make them – in our guide to hiring staff.

Reporting to the ATO

As an employer, you will collect taxes from your employees for the tax office. You need to hand over those taxes when scheduled, and file reports to the tax office on a regular basis. These reports show them you’re paying and taxing your employees correctly.

Under Single Touch Payroll (STP), you’ll report to the ATO every payday how much your employees were paid, how much tax was withheld and what contributions were made to superannuation. This report needs to be lodged through your accounting or payroll software, or you can get a registered agent or payroll service provider to do it for you.

Payroll options for small business

The more employees you have, the more complex your payroll usually gets, especially if you have a mix of employees on hourly wages and salaries. Throw in some contractors, staff on commission, overtime, expense claims, allowances, and leave entitlements, and your payroll can be different every time you run it.

And if you’re managing employees across several states, that adds another layer of complexity.

There are different ways of handling your small business payroll:

  • Pen and paper, or spreadsheets: These methods are preferred by businesses with a handful of employees. However spreadsheets are often not accepted by the tax office.
  • DIY software: Apps can calculate pay and deductions and even fill out tax forms for you. You’ll need to make the payments yourself, however.
  • Payroll service providers: You can outsource your payroll to experts. Some providers will do absolutely everything for you. Others will help with specific tasks.
  • Accountants and bookkeepers: You don’t have to go to a specialist payroll company. Many accountants and bookkeepers can do payroll for you. Check out the Xero advisor directory to find one.


Xero does not provide accounting, tax, business or legal advice. This guide has been provided for information purposes only. You should consult your own professional advisors for advice directly relating to your business or before taking action in relation to any of the content provided.

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