My JC Path in the Payroll sector


Fiona Robertson

Fiona Robertson

Head of Payroll Support

07 September 2023


It’s National Payroll Week and to celebrate, we sat down for a chat with Fiona Robertson, Head of Payroll Support. Here, we explore how her role has developed over 34 years of working in the sector, how payroll has changed during this period, where payroll is heading in the future, and the biggest challenges and opportunities facing our payroll clients.

Tell us about your role and what you do for businesses.

I lead the Payroll Support function at the firm and responsible for overseeing payroll policies, payment operations, billing, and all aspects of compliance. I work closely with the leadership team to support strategy, development and overall progression of the business line whilst ensuring our offering is reflective of the market trends and appropriate regulations.

When did you join JC and how has your role developed since then?

I joined the firm in 1989, straight from school, and worked across a number of teams before settling in our Payroll Services team in 1993.

I’ve celebrated various promotions throughout my career to date and was delighted to join the Director team which I led for many years.

As the business grew, I was lucky enough to oversee the launch of two new offices to complement our Elgin office: Aberdeen and Glasgow. As we grew, I decided to take a step back and focus on the compliance aspect of our function, reporting to our Partner and Head of Payroll, Michael McAllister, who I work very closely with.

Have you always worked in the payroll sector?

Pretty much, other than a part time job in the local petrol station, I have remained loyal to the payroll sector and grateful that Johnston Carmichael continued to share this passion with me.

How have you seen Payroll Services grow and develop over your time working in the sector?

Where do I start?! Our trainee specialists have no idea of the struggles we had in years gone by. When I joined, we had very basic software to calculate some of the statutory calculations, dot-matrix printers, filing cabinets full of paperwork, manual P11 deduction cards and a stationary cupboard full of HMRC approved stationary – changed days as we now work in a paperless environment!

In the early 90’s, we had two offices supporting our payroll bureau which were Elgin and Inverurie. Fast forward to 2023, I would never have thought we would be using cloud-based software, robotic process automation (who we call Betty), and I am now on the project team to consider how we can benefit from artificial intelligence – quite scary although exciting at the same time!

I used to dread our end of year process as we had the P35, P14 and P60’s to prepare for every single client. Now this transmits with a click of a button, although one thing hasn’t changed – compliance. I must admit, I do sometimes miss the satisfaction of preparing a report of file for HM Revenue & Customs and sending this down to our despatch room.

With the various financial services legislation now in place, we use BACS as our default payment method to all our clients. Part of my role in the early days was to prepare cash wages for some of our clients (including a visit to the local bank branch to collect a bag of cash). I still shake my head with frustration when you got to the end and were 2p out – back to the start it was!

With the biggest overhaul to PAYE since 1944, RTI was launched in 2012 and was probably the biggest change for our team as we had no choice but to embrace technology and start to consider all aspects of automation. A revamp of the Government gateway systems was long overdue, and although is ‘the norm’ now, was not without its challenges at the time.

Over the years more and more responsibility has been pushed to employers through complexities with employee leave (statutory and holiday), pension obligations, national minimum wage legislation, GDPR, termination payments, benefits in kind, to name but a few.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for the clients you work with?

The biggest challenge for our clients is complacency. Many systems offer a ‘fully streamlined’ offering, although we must remember, both employment and taxation legislation is constantly changing, and systems need people to feed them the knowledge. Far too often I see clients deciding to ‘attempt’ a manual adjustment and then come to us as they have received a penalty from HMRC. This is where our team at Johnston Carmichael can offer the technology which is supported by a fully qualified Payroll specialist.

The biggest opportunity for clients is to embrace the direction that we are going in. Post-Brexit, lots of aspects of domestic legislation will be changing, and we should be preparing for this. Gender Pay Gap requirements are just the start, we will start to see a lot more statutory returns being filed – not to mention the focus on minimum wage with the HMRC taskforce. Employers should start to prepare for this, work with us to review their processes, procedures and assess their appetite for risk.

Building strong relationships between Finance, HR and Payroll is so critical to ensure consistent success for any organisation.

Where do you see the Payroll industry going in the future?

Payroll is fast becoming a platform for employee wellbeing and education. We are seeing the launch of ‘on demand pay’ throughout the UK coupled with financial education on payslip terminology – gone are the days you just accept the final number is your net pay!

With the rise in wage costs, employers need to think carefully about how they spend their capital. Payroll can help with this, especially around our forecasting reporting and expert knowledge in tax efficiency. 

What do you enjoy most about working within the Payroll Services team in Johnston Carmichael?

You never know what the day is going to throw at you! Our team of specialists are hardworking, talented and dedicated to our clients, and I am delighted to share their passion – which I feel is stronger than ever.