Anita Lettink was the guest for this episode of #HRTechChat. Many viewers of this video podcast may know Anita from her nearly 20 years in positions of increasing seniority at NGA Human Resources (acquired in 2019 by Alight). Following nearly three years as a senior vice president there, she finally left NGAHR in mid-2020 to found HR Tech Radar and write and publish her book, “How to Select Your Next Payroll: The Ultimate Guide.”
Anita is a payroll expert by any calculus, and it was a real pleasure to reconnect and discuss the subject matter of her book in detail. Having fallen out of touch in recent years, Anita and I actually go way back, originally meeting when she was about midway through her tour of duty at NGAHR. This was back when NGAHR was known as NorthgateArinso, and the chief executive was Mike Ettling (who’s now CEO of Unit4). As for little ol’ me, I was technology editor for HRO Today. My, how time flies….
Much as nobody has ever complimented or thanked the power company for the electricity working, no employee (or company executive, for that matter) has ever spoken up to give the payroll department a thumbs up for getting payroll right again. When the power goes out or payroll goes wrong, however, watch the emails, text messages and phone calls roll in.
“It is the expectation of employees that payroll will be correct,” Anita said during the episode. “You cannot overperform payroll. But the moment it is wrong, even for a small group of people, I’d say all hell breaks loose. And all the trust you’ve built, the reputation that you had, is gone overnight.”
Payroll is one of those things employees are entitled to, no questions asked. They know this to the point that they don’t even think about it, when payroll is right. There’s an unspoken understanding. Get payroll wrong, however, and the employer brand suffers. This is why payroll absolutely must be correct. When it is, employee sentiment remains unaffected; when it isn’t, employee sentiment tanks.
Having been a close observer and actor in the payroll selection process for so long, Anita has — interestingly — identified what she believes to be a specific stage in the process that, left unaddressed, can botch or derail the implementation and subsequent deployment of a payroll solution. What is this stage in the process? Consider viewing this episode of the podcast, where we discuss the answer. Payroll is among my very favorite topics, and Anita brought deep insight to the conversation.
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Brent Skinner 00:02
Well, hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest episode of the HR Tech Chat video podcast. And today I have with me a very special guest and Anita letting, who is the founder of HR tech radar, and the author of a book how to select your next payroll The Ultimate Guide, which which was published in, in the last year or so. Welcome, and Anita, welcome. I have done I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of your your background and experience. And if you would please share with the with the audience. Just some of your background and what what makes you an expert in payroll.
Anita Lettink 00:47
Absolutely. Hi, Brent. Hi, everyone. Thanks for listening. The Imani toileting, I have a background in technology. last 2025 years I spent in HR technology and payroll. And for 20 years, I worked at NGA HR which is an international HR and Payroll consulting and outsourcing partner towards the end of my employment, it was acquired by a light. And then I saw it, I am going to fulfill a longtime dream and become an independence and work with HR tech startups and scale ups and advice companies and I do a lot of keynotes on the future of work on conferences and in, in for in company training.
Brent Skinner 01:44
Hmm. Yeah, that’s a that’s quite quite the background. And this is a little anecdote. I remember meeting you. Somehow. Did we meet in person? I don’t recall. It wasn’t
Anita Lettink 01:57
an HR tech conference. And I think it was the one in Chicago.
Brent Skinner 02:01
Oh, wow. Yeah. Yeah. And I also recall, I recall about 10. Gosh, 10 plus years ago now, we will just ballpark it. Let me stop there. I was I was writing for HBO today. And I was at an Northgate Irwins meeting. And that was pretty interesting. I think. I think that was when think Nike, was it. Mike Atlin. He was there at
Anita Lettink 02:27
the time. He was one of the CEOs that we had. Yes, yeah.
Brent Skinner 02:30
Yeah. And now he’s at Unit Four and all this stuff? Yeah. Really, really. It’s a small world. And I’m so so pleased to have you on the podcast, because payroll is just a really, really, it’s, let me just back up a little bit here. People from the outside looking in, they think payroll. I mean, payroll is important. It’s very important. Yeah. But you don’t necessarily think wow, it’s interesting, right, that I’m just kind of channeling the sort of outside external person. It doesn’t seem interesting. But But man, is it interesting, it’s possibly the most interesting area? Well, that might be so many interesting areas in ACM, but it’s one of the most interesting. There’s a lot of fertile ground and payroll right now. Any thoughts around that? I mean, I’m not really doing it justice.
Anita Lettink 03:26
I think you absolutely nailed it, actually. Because payroll is if you do it, right, everyone is like, oh, yeah, of course, my face was correct. That is my expectation. You cannot over before, right? It always needs to be 100%. Correct. But the moment that isn’t, even for a small group of people, then I would say all hell breaks loose. And all the trash that you build up, and the reputation that you had is gone overnight. So it’s a very difficult profession, in the sense that when you do it, right, no one complements you when something goes wrong. The phone rings and you’re in the middle of it.
Brent Skinner 04:21
Yeah, it’s, that’s that’s a huge, huge point. I like to say, you know, I don’t flip the switch on for the light in the morning, in my office, and it comes on and say, Wow, let me call up the power company. And you guys did a great job. The electricity is on today, right? But if it’s out, no matter the time of day, I’m on. I’m on the online app. I’m on text message. I kind of call them up been through this a couple times because we live in the sticks. Any event? Yeah. So it’s kind of in that sense. It’s kind of a of a I have a thankless job that might be a little bit a little bit harsh to say but but yeah, and you know what the other thing that is really interesting about it right now is that it’s not well, you mentioned that, you know, all hell breaks loose if it’s if it go if it’s wrong, it’s not 100% Correct. It’s something we talked about here 360, insights, SR way lens through which to look at HCM and payroll being payroll sometimes owned by finance, but you when it’s owned by HR, we talked about concrete HCM and abstract HCM, concrete HCM is everything that’s, you know, having to do with efficiencies and automation. And what can be reduced to or translated, excuse me to an actual number, usually $1 amount, or $1 amount that actually fits into an accounting spreadsheet. And when you think about it that way, payroll is really the most could be thought of as the most concrete aspect of HCM because it’s an actual dollar number that goes into the general ledger, every every pay period. But it’s also the most abstract, abstract HCM being all this stuff having to do with employee experience and play sentiment and player culture, all these sorts of things that we know, for a fact, we it’s, it’s kind of foolish to argue against these things being important to organizational perpetuity and success and all this kind of stuff. But it can’t be whittled down to an exact number that goes into a spreadsheet, because it’s a future thing. And so, so you can actually put it into a number that goes in spreadsheet in and it’s so important. And when you talk about payroll going awry, right, then, I mean, I can’t think of a bigger employee sentiment crisis for an organization than that.
Anita Lettink 06:58
Exactly. And that was the reason that I started to write the book, because I was watching the news and reading some articles and the first months of this year, and I noticed that a lot of payroll problems hit the news, where companies moved to a new system, and after go live, we’re unable to pay people correctly. And in some cases, the result was that, of course, people could not pay their bills had to loan money from family, or even ended up at the food bank, because they had no money in the bank, especially if you live paycheck to paycheck to paycheck, or if you were an hourly worker. And then then the fact that you have no new income is, is a big problem. And so I started to look into it, because I was just interested at that point, what is going on here. And at first I thought, okay, maybe there’s one vendor, and they don’t have enough people because of the labor shortage, and so their go lights go wrong. But that wasn’t the case. And then I said, oh, so maybe it’s a solution that is maybe not fit for purpose. And some people migrated onto that, and they went live on it. And it’s, it’s just has having problems. That wasn’t the case, either. And the interesting thing was that this happened in the United States, I have examples in Canada, in the UK, in Ireland, in South Africa, in Finland, in a couple of places in Asia. So it was everywhere, it was everywhere. And I started to reach out to some of these people to learn what had gone wrong. And the common denominator was that early on in the process, there was a misalignment between the buyer and the vendor. And if you do not catch that early enough, simply because you don’t understand each other well, you don’t talk the same language, then that hits you later on. Right you make. Yeah, right, you make assumptions about the other party doing stuff that you should do, or vice versa. And so it isn’t done. And so you aren’t ready by January 1, when you want to go live or March 1 or whatever you want to go live. But you have a burning platform, you need to go live. And so ultimately, you have no other choice than run the new payroll on your new engine. And that meant that I thought, this is something that I can do that I can do something about because I know I know a lot about payroll, I know what happens in the first phases and during the sales process. And so if I can educate the buyer a little bit better, that they are prepared that they know in advance which decisions they will have to take during the process, that will probably help everyone it will help the buyer because they come prepared and they know what lies ahead. And it also helps the vendor because they now know that you are talking on a little bit more equal footing than you might have done previously. And I think from the, from the responses that I got, as you mentioned, the book came out in in September, this is exactly what is happening. So yeah, that’s a goal achieved, I would say. That’s,
Brent Skinner 10:40
that’s, that’s fascinating. So So you were able to determine if but I’m just sort of, sort of reiterate what you said in a different way. Just so I’m getting it right, you were able to determine that, that a lot of these problems with payroll, they aren’t, they’re all traceable back. A lot of them are traceable back to a certain point in time, or a phase in the vendor. Customer Relationship. That’s fairly early. Yeah, where are they? They just they, they don’t even realize that they’re misaligning. But they’re misaligning, and then just snowballs. And, and it turns into a into a big problem.
Anita Lettink 11:23
And this is this is also based on my own experience, while working at NGA, and being involved in the sales projects. A large portion of it, especially when you’re selling regional payroll, or Global Payroll is educating the buyer on what kind of services are you getting? When you say, with an external vendor? What kind of solution are you getting? Both sides make a lot of assumptions because the vendor is so focused on, you know, this is our service, we know exactly what we are delivering. But the buyer has worked with another vendor or they currently run their own. So their mindset is what they have. And it’s never exactly the same. And unless you are very precise, in defining, okay, this is what we currently have. And this is what we expect you to deliver. And you match that point by point, then, there’s always a misconception or something that does not quite line up. And the other part of it is that buyers buy go out to market every five years maybe every 10 years if they extend one time, right. So the experience that they have is from five years ago, but in the meantime, everything has changed. And if it’s 10 years ago, a lot more has changed. Yeah. And vendors, they sell this on a continuous basis, this is their thing, right? This is their expertise. So they have an enormous knowledge advantage over over to buyer and I try to bridge that gap a little bit so that buyers are more aware of what makes a difference? And how can you be successful? What are the things that you need to decide on? Really? What are the things that you need to ask for? What are the steps that you need to take during the process. And I don’t imagine that I will completely the order or that my book helps them helps these problems completely disappear. But I hope that it brings the vendor and the buyer a little bit closer together so that they talk about the same things. And when they don’t they realize that they don’t talk about same things.
Brent Skinner 13:53
Well, awareness is incredibly important. Now, humor me for a moment, I have a little bit of an a hypothesis that’s sort of developing in my head while I’m listening to you. And it could be completely wrong. I don’t know. But the buying process has obviously changed immensely over the past 1015 years, you know, with the advent of the cloud that some of this is you know, it’s almost old hat to say that the cloud has taken over but but you know, just it has and used to be it running the boss you know, with with on premises solutions. I insist on calling them on premises, not on premise. But anyway, nice isn’t a site. But now we have lots of cooks in the kitchen. Lots of stakeholders on the buyer side you have the CFO who has their own priorities you have the business managers off is often the the internal champion point of contact. You have you know, maybe in play experienced counsel, we’ve seen that, you know, maybe it’s maybe an operations person. See Oh, Oh, possibly, and all sorts of other people. Have you seen? Do you think that? Do you think that these sort of these problems that that these issues that that surfaced early that they’re undetected in turning to a big monster once it’s deployed and you’ve done your first payroll? Is there more of that now than there used to be? Or is it? Or is this something that sort of transcends all that is evergreen is perennial, and it’s because of other things.
Anita Lettink 15:32
I think that why it’s more visible now is, first of all, every employee that isn’t being paid correctly, drops hit on Twitter, or the visibility is, or Instagram or whatever, the visibility is a lot higher. So that is one. Secondly, and payroll is never exactly the same, you know, that right? Every company has their own torques, and they have these legacy policies, and you need to explain them. But if they are from a couple of years ago, then maybe no one is there anymore, that can explain them. And so people are not being paid correctly, because no one knows anymore, that there were exceptions, or that that was a was a legacy policy. And also, in many of the large companies that I have worked with, you have a procurement departments, and this procurement department has a process. And they run that process. And one of the things that they do very well is negotiate the price, and negotiate it as low as possible. But that comes with a consequence. And sometimes what is not clear is that the lower the price, the less movement or room to wiggle, the vendor has and at certain point in time, you box them in so much that they hardly make a profit anymore. And that is not to say that they cannot deliver a good payroll, they really can. But with the way that you negotiate is that when you lower the price, the vendor probably takes out some services, right? And so you keep on and so something falls along the wayside. And if there’s no one that is able to say, Look, you have now negotiated this out of the contract, this is a basic service, we need this, this is important because we cannot do this in house anymore. Right. And then you discover that after your your you go live, that is a problem. And then one of the things that I think is not helping anyone is that a lot of really good professional payroll admins are retiring. And there’s no one who within companies that are able or willing to take that over a company say, okay, so and so is retiring, this is the moment that we bring it all externally. And if you do that you lose knowledge. And so if you then move from one provider to another, and it is really hard to understand what exactly you are moving because no one knows the intricacies and the details of payroll anymore. And as you know, the devil is in the details. It always is.
Brent Skinner 18:47
Yeah. I’m hearing you know, there’s a there’s a there’s a difficulty in paying paying it forward in terms of legacy IP, when it comes to the payroll department. I’m hearing that there’s a there’s a talent pipeline problem in payroll administration right now. And when I’m also hearing is that what I’m inferring is that payroll that people actually run payroll, need to put this need to step up their game, that might not be the right way to put it. They need to ensure they need to be very vocal during the buying process so that other stakeholders that have sort of intrinsic control over the process don’t take over, you know, the the procurement department which really doesn’t know much at all about actually processing payroll. What what a what a what a travesty if they’re sort of driving the process and the payroll Lee Leadership isn’t, you know, doesn’t have strong input into that into that that’s what I’m hearing. Exactly.
Anita Lettink 20:04
Yeah, it’s case, you really must learn a must listen to the expert.
Brent Skinner 20:12
Let you know, you mentioned that, uh, you know, problems with issues with payroll payroll gone wrong are more visible today sort of in aggregate, in the macro because of, you know, social media and, and it sounds so cliche, but it’s true, you know, your payroll goes wrong, and your employee goes on Twitter and drops a nasty tweet about it. And, and, oh, gosh, your employer brand is all of a sudden starting to, there’s a chink in the armor right away. Yeah. You were, we were talking previously online. And you mentioned demographic skills and automation beings. I think I have that. Right. It’s sort of a trifecta, that sort of affecting payroll and, and this, to me seems like a good place to pivot our conversation a little bit to talk about how, you know, the dynamics of payroll, visa vie the workforce, like, how is this changing? It used to be that it just for viewers, I’ll just kind of given possibly a very clumsy overview, but my my understanding is that, you know, we’ve moved beyond, you know, payroll just being this thing that that’s in the background, even for our employees, right, you know, it’s it’s get it right, make sure it’s right, and then everybody’s happy. And then nobody talks about it. We’ve moved beyond that, where, where, even if it’s wrong, you know, it’s kind of quiet in the background, take care of it. It’s an internal rule. But it doesn’t necessarily get out into the wild there. But now we’re in this situation where it can actually spread like a wildfire, sort of the negativity A and B. The other side of the coin there is that payroll is becoming much more of a as well, what I’ve heard is it’s becoming more of an experience than a, than a sort of a, an a, you know, a regular occurrence. Maybe you can speak to some of that.
Anita Lettink 22:14
Yeah, I think that, first of all, you see a lot of different people in the workforce. Now, in the past, it was very much you are a full time employee or a part time employee, but you have a job with an employer. And what you see a little bit as a result of a pandemic, where people started to rethink their priorities. But also, because people are now starting to understand that a permanent job, well, it sounds nice that you have a permanent job. But when companies have problems, especially when they have financial problems, you lose your job anyway, right, you might get more money. But a permanent contract is not a guarantee. So that means that this notion of I have a permanent job, so that means I have a guaranteed income has also suffered some way and especially among young people, younger people, I would say you see that they are diversifying income streams. And that means they might have a job for three, maybe four days a week. But that covers the basics. They pay their mortgages and food and insurance and car payments out of that. But all the extras come from additional activities, as I would say, and so maybe they have a store on Shopify, where they sell crafts, arts and crafts, or maybe they work on a startup. So the whole notion of one employer, one income is really under pressure. In a lot of situations, and especially among the workforce, I would say below 35. They have a completely different view. And then of course, there are a lot of people that cannot make ends meet on one job, and they need two or three jobs just to because of low income. And they need more jobs to cover even the basics. So you see all these variations and that are putting this I have one job with one employer that gives me one income that is really under pressure.
Brent Skinner 24:44
Interesting, interesting. So this is this is transforming the very concept of what payroll is. Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
Anita Lettink 24:57
And there’s I think something else that plays into that, and that is the focus on mental health. And what some research has uncovered is that often mental health problems are caused by financial problems. If you do not know how you will pay the bills this month, and you sit at work, or you are at work, and you’re constantly thinking, Oh, where will I get the money to pay my mortgage? Well, where will I get the money to pay my rent, you are not a productive employee, because you have other things on your mind. That take precedence over over work. And so we’re in the past, employers would pay people and that was it right there, you did not cross into the personal domain of an employee, you see that line disappearing with employers offering all kinds of financial education, sometimes apps. And I also see in the into startups and scaleups, that I’m working with a lot of focus on support solutions that employers can can offer to employees to help them manage their money, manage their spending, maybe help them budgets, and be more in control of what they earn. And the interesting thing about that is that while the employer might offer that you can also then add the income that you get from others. So it’s only for what you earn with that one employer, you can add your one or two other income streams, which I think is good. And that gives you that holistic picture of what you’re actually making and how much you can spend.
Brent Skinner 27:03
Yeah, that’s making sense in what I’m also hearing here is is is is that employers are paying, let’s call them paying organizations, right? Because, you know, the, I think that I think you make a good point about sort of the the evolution of the ideas, especially in the younger generation, they evolution with the idea of having a permanent role, you know, permanent role, or to call it maybe full time, because nothing’s permanent. But to me, I’m hearing that paying organizations can help to mitigate some of the mental unwellness that that’s traceable back to financial hardship, by practicing empathy, and empathy in the form of financial wellness. You know, services is one way to do that.
Anita Lettink 28:06
Yeah, I’m, what I want to be careful here. What I’m not saying is mental health equals financial difficulties, because that is not the link that that we can make. We will we do know, is that when there when people have mental health issues, let’s say half of that, or sometimes more than half of that come from financial issues. But then, of course, there are also I want to be very clear on this very careful on this are also mental health issues that are completely separate from Yes, financial issues.
Brent Skinner 28:46
Yeah, thank you for adding that clarity there. It does. I think it does, however, seem to follow that, that if employees are, are, if you have an if you have a contract was called them contributors now employers employees, right, if you’re appealing organization with a contributor, who is experiencing financial, you know, sort of, you know, clear and present financial hardship, it’s going to have a direct detrimental impact on their productivity. And so in this in this regard, it’s really, you know, cost effective for organizations to practice this empathy related to, you know, around the edges of pay. Yes. Yeah.
Anita Lettink 29:37
Yeah, I had, I think the interesting thing there is that as an employer, you then actually cross over into that personal domain. We’re in the past. That was a line that employers did not cross, right. You pay it and then whatever the employee does with it, that is there decision to make and now employers start to move very carefully, very lightly. But they are stepping over that line and they read, they are reaching out to their people and say, hey, if this is the case for you, then let’s have this conversation, I have tools available to you I have some education available. Can Can you benefit from that. And even though I think that you know, work is work and personal is personal or private is private, then this is something that can actually benefit people. Because when people learn to manage their money that has a tremendous effect on their life, and also on their personal well being. Actually, it’s something that we should learn, hopefully, in our family, like from our parents, or we should learn it in school, but we know that that isn’t the case for everyone. So I think it is a benefit. In many cases.
Brent Skinner 31:02
Yeah, yeah, it humanizes the organization too. Yeah, there’s a, there’s a, for a very long time, there’s been a, an inclination to, to ignore, or, or downplay the, the obvious humaneness that’s involved in work, right. And so, you know, there’s, there can still be how healthy boundaries between the private and the work life, but at the same time, there can be sort of a middle ground or a little bit of just just enough of, again, of an argument there. You’re absolutely correct. And, you know, now the thing that I’m inferring from what you’re saying here is that, you know, if you’re, if you’re going back to the selection process, and the, in that whole dance between the vendor, and in customer at the very outset, maybe when they’re still deciding between vendors, right. I’d say table stakes today, especially for some sectors of the workforce or, you know, earned wage access, you know, you know, on demand pay or streaming pay, which is something I’m seeing a little bit more of, what are some other, maybe, what would you say are some other table stakes, what are some things you know, must haves, you know, if the vendor just doesn’t have this, then, you know, move on to a different vendor, before you make a big mistake.
Anita Lettink 32:29
I would say be, do your due diligence on payroll automation, every manual action in a payroll process has the potential to go wrong. And yeah, whenever there’s a human intervention, you run the risk that it goes wrong. And so the more that vendor has automated the process, the less need there is for human intervention. And you really want to dig deep into what they are doing, and especially what they have on the roadmap, what they have already delivered, because you and I know that a roadmap is not a guarantee to anything right and a roadmap is a plan, but it would really be it is important to look at that and see what they have already done and what they are planning to deliver. One example of that is anomaly detection, not one has that yet, but it can make your life a lot easier and the D why conversation do we pay equally here? And how do we even know that we pay people equally well, with anomaly detection, you can let the program run and analyze various groups and the moment that a certain group in like a hunt, there are 100 employees in a group and they all have the same benefit except for one that are done you have your anomaly and the an anomaly detection will service that one person so that you can take a look at it and understand why this person does not have this benefits and probably corrected and when you do the program learns from that. So, the next time that the same thing happened, the program will service the person that will immediately suggest a solution. And if anomaly detection has enough experience, it can just autocorrect if you trust it to do that, then it can just autocorrect these types of deviations that it encounters on the on the fly. I think this one because you know with pay transparency and pay equity and an equal pay this is It’s really a must have, especially if you live in a country where it’s mandatory to report on that.
Brent Skinner 35:06
Yeah, I’m so glad you, you mentioned pay transparency, took the words out of my mouth, you know, with the diversity, equity and inclusion and belonging, and, but also with pay transparency, these sorts of things. You know? Yeah, anomaly detection seems to me, you, you convinced me this is definitely a must have. And, and my understanding is that this is this comes from, you know, innovations in payroll technology, like machine learning in these sorts of things. Yeah. So, so there’s so much to unpack there, and I’m looking at the time, and I think we’re out of time.
Anita Lettink 35:45
But we will do that next time friends. Yeah, exactly.
Brent Skinner 35:49
worsts, we’re singing the same song. I’d love to have you again as a guest another time that we can get into some of these other things. But in the meantime, I need to thank you so much. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with our audience. I think we are. Hopefully we’re hopefully we were able to provide some really valuable information for them today.
Anita Lettink 36:09
Thanks for having me today. Brent. Absolutely. Bye bye. Bye.