Editor’s Note: Jim Birch is Senior Director, Partner Management at Celergo. He has spent more than 12 years working within the global payroll environment with Celergo. His primary focus is on Celergo’s global in-country provider network, which spans more than 200 partners in 150+ countries. This includes all aspects of vetting, selection, performance, and pricing for all in-country providers of Celergo. Jim has also lived in and led Celergo operations in Singapore, London, and Budapest. He has recently returned from Budapest with his family to the United States.
Why and how did you become involved in payroll?
I think like many working in payroll, I kind of fell into the industry and am very glad that I did. Coming out of university, I was very eager to work within an international environment, which is what drew me to a global payroll company. The excitement around providing services and working with the complexities of the world payroll market has been endlessly interesting and is what has kept me in the industry. Payroll does not have the most exciting reputation, but I encourage anyone considering a career in global payroll to take a hard look at it, as there is never a dull day and it is a dynamic environment.
What were some of your early career lessons?
I’m a big believer in ensuring that we understand the business attitude and communication styles within the cultures we are working with. Early in my career there were instances where I took a far too direct communication style when working with some team members throughout Asia, which ultimately just led to a more frustrating environment for all parties.
We need to remember that many countries around the world have a very indirect communication style, with decisions being made more on instincts than facts. U.S. team members tend to have a very direct communication style and fast-moving discussion process. We need to learn to have patience and adapt to the culture of the country in which we are doing business if we want to ensure a long-term partnership and success with in-country team members.
One recommendation is very simple—pick up the phone. It is difficult to create relationships via email with team members in other countries. It takes more time, but having patience and not hesitating to rack up a big phone bill will pay off in the long run.
Also, don‘t ever talk about politics. Ever. It is far too polarizing of a subject in today’s world. Just stay neutral and change the subject. We’ve all been caught in this situation too many times.
What is your management and leadership approach today?
I really focus hard on ensuring my team members have space to be creative and take ownership of their responsibilities. For us to have a successful and dynamic team that is always pushing forward, we need to give team members proper training, a structure to work within, clear expectations, and allow them to flourish.
I also try to avoid stress as much as possible. I know that is a vague statement, so allow me to explain. There is a time to have intensity and focus, and this needs to be instilled into the staff. But that is much different than letting the anxiety of stress put a cloud over the team. Stress causes sleepless nights, poor attitudes, anxiety, and it never lets go if you don’t create an environment for the staff to move on from the intensity of a day. If everyone needs to relax at the end of the day, don’t hesitate in providing the means to do so. If you need a spontaneous game of throwing ping pong balls in a bucket, go for it. Lighten the mood and don’t let negative stress linger.
What are some considerations a company should focus on with a prospective vendor?
Company culture compatibility. It is imperative to work with a vendor that approaches implementation, client service, problem-solving, etc., in a way that is consistent with your internal company culture. We make this a cornerstone of our decision-making process with in-country partners because if we don’t align from an overall corporate aspect, long-term success is more challenging.
Liability sounds simple, but ensuring you are hiring a vendor that is willing to stand behind the service and take full liability for compliance is essential. The vendor needs to not only guarantee this but stand behind it contractually.
Employee training. Focus very deeply on how the company hires and trains its staff. Payroll isn’t like accounting, where someone with a degree in the subject comes in with a basic understandingof the service. Most people have only looked at their paycheck a few times prior to getting their first payroll job, and they probably didn’t even understand it. It is critical that you really zero in on how companies onboard and train their staff to be successful in payroll. This is basically the same around the entire world. Payroll companies have to train their staff and ensure you think they are good at it. A quick side point on employee training: don’t get too hung up on the vendor’s ability to train you as the client on local payroll legislation. Payroll firms around the world may claim it, but very few are good at training you on the intricacies of payroll in a given country. Do the proper diligence up front that the vendor is capable, training their own staff well, and then spend time on more value-added activities.
What are some essential practices and strategic choices to put in place to manage risk and compliance?
All companies have accepted a certain degree of risk by doing business globally. The level of this risk also varies based on the country. Doing business in the U.K. or Germany does not bring along the same level of compliance risk as doing business in Senegal and Myanmar. Recognize what is reasonable given the business, political, and economic environment of a given country and set your goals to minimize risks as much as possible. Establish a set of standards that are expected and train local team members to meet your standards and adapt to them. Otherwise, you should move on to find a team that will.
There should also be processes implemented to review the accuracy and timeliness of tax filings and payments. If any employee is not paid on time or correctly, it is usually found out pretty quickly. However, for some government agencies errors can come to light several years down the road. Be proactive and do a high-level review and ensure timing and amounts are correct.
What are the emerging trends in data management and data security?
Privacy seems to be a really hot topic these days. Whether it is due to recent political events like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or the never-ending advancement of technology in our society, privacy is an ongoing discussion (see the GDPR Q&A feature article in this issue). Until recently, I must admit that I didn’t know a great deal about how data privacy varies from data security.
Data security is the practice and process of ensuring data or information cannot be accessed by unauthorized parties. Data privacy is focused on limiting the personnel who have access to data and ensuring they are using that data properly. I expect in the coming year for data privacy to take a more center stage in the discussion on data management as firms make this more of a central aspect of their programs.