Getting your head around small business payroll

Small Business Guides

4 min read

If you’re starting to employ people, congratulations – business is obviously going well. And welcome to payroll. Here’s your introduction to the basics of pay, deductions, and dealing with the tax office.

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 offer letter 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.

What’s involved in payroll compliance?

To comply with government regulations, you must:

  • make accurate payments and deductions

  • provide your employee with a detailed pay stub that shows what you have 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 four 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 and healthcare insurance

  • payroll taxes

  • garnishments such as child support, student loans and debt collection

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 tax office

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.

Most small businesses must send several reports to the IRS each year. There’s generally a quarterly report on employee earnings and tax, plus an end-of-year summary. State tax agencies may also have reporting requirements, so check with them for their payment and filing dates.

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.