How to pay employees in a small business
If you don’t pay your staff properly, you won’t have a business for long. Discover how to make sure you’re operating legally, and avoid an unexpected visit from the taxman.
Payroll isn’t exactly a topic that gets the pulse racing, but doing it correctly is vital for your small business. Get it wrong, and it will have a huge impact – either in the form of financial penalties from HMRC, or some seriously unhappy employees.
Paying your staff correctly is also your legal responsibility as a business owner – meaning it’s really important that you know the rules and abide by them.
As a business owner, you’ll not only need to ensure that you pay your employees at least the national minimum wage, but you’ll also need to register with HMRC as an employer, and calculate all the necessary deductions from staff pay packets. These include student loan repayments, national insurance, and pension contributions (which, in the age of auto enrolment, is something nearly all small businesses need to bear in mind).
Other requirements include producing a payslip for each employee before, or on, the date they’re paid, and reporting their pay and deductions to HMRC in an FPS (Full Payment Submission).
This can be a lot of work – especially for the astounding 25% of small businesses that still track their finances using pen and paper – but thankfully, there’s an easier way. Using payroll software automates much of the process, makes sure you avoid costly errors, and ensures that you pay your employees quickly and efficiently, while complying with all relevant regulations.
To receive a range of quotes tailored to the needs of your business and compare the best small business payroll software providers, simply fill in the form at the top of the page.
Eager to learn more? This guide will take you through every step of the payroll process, covering:
Be aware that this process can take up to two weeks, and you can’t register more than two months before you start paying your new staff.
You’re only exempt from registering if you employ workers who earn less than £118 a week, less than £511 a month, or less than £6,136 a year.
You should still keep payroll records.
However, if these workers receive a pay rise, have an existing pension, are employed elsewhere, or start to receive expenses, then you’ll need to register as an employer.
Most limited companies can register online. Get started by going to the gov.uk employer registration page.
Offer too high a salary, and you could over stretch the finances of your startup with poor return on investment. Offer too little, however, and you may struggle to attract high-calibre candidates.
Thankfully, the following factors can help you gauge the right salary to offer.
- Affordability – This has to be the starting point – you need to carefully consider the gap this person will fill, how valuable it is to your business, and what impact this person is likely to have on the bottom line.
- Evaluate the position – Does the role require specialist knowledge or technical training? Or is it just an entry-level admin job? Will the problems the person faces day-to-day be simple and repetitive, or complex and ever-changing? How much responsibility will they have to make decisions that affect the business?
- Location of your business – Your postcode will heavily influence how much you’ll need to offer employees. For example, businesses in London need to pay employees more than those based in rural England or in Northern Ireland.
- Experience of candidate – Is the candidate a graduate fresh out of university? Or do they have years of experience, or a specialist degree?
- Industry benchmarking – Many professional bodies publish regular pay surveys, providing a benchmark upon which to base salary scales. The main findings of these surveys are usually freely available on the internet.
Industry benchmarking is just a fancy way of saying that you need to work out how much people in similar roles are being paid in other companies, so you know the going rate for that role.
If you have a network of business contacts, this can be a great way of gathering info on pay scales. You can also check job adverts, as some may state the salary being offered up front.
A more sophisticated approach is to use online tools like LinkedIn Salary.
Using this tool is easy – start by submitting your own salary details, and you’ll be granted access for a year (details of your salary are kept private, and only used to help gauge the average for your role).
Then, just type in the job title and location, and the results pop up in seconds.
If, for example, you’re looking to hire a receptionist in London, enter that info and you get this:
You can immediately see that the average salary for a receptionist in London is £21,000 a year, while the range is from £16,400 – £27,000 a year.
Click ‘see more insights’ and scroll down the subsequent page to get more detailed information, including insight into annual bonuses, commission, and tips.
Scroll down further to see salaries broken down by company size, industry, education level, and field of study.
Of course, salary benchmarking tools like LinkedIn Salary insights are not 100% accurate (they are reliant on information provided by employees and salary levels included in job advertisements), but they should give you a decent idea of what candidates will expect from different roles.
Use this data as a starting point, then adjust for the factors discussed above.
Two important final points
- Interviewee expectations – Ask your interviewee what they'd expect to be paid – this will help you manage expectations, and ensure that both sides are on the same page.
- Equal pay – Under UK law, you are not allowed to pay employees a different salary purely based on their sex/gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or whether they have a disability.
Always be prepared to negotiate pay, especially with senior staff.
3. How to pay staff and calculate deductions
Always remember, the type of pay you’ll be offering any given staff member should be explicitly stated in their contract of employment.
|Type of Pay||Description|
|Salary||Staff are paid based on the number of hours they would work in a year.|
|Hourly rate||Staff are paid for a set number of hours they’ll work in any given week.|
|Commission||Most common in sales and recruitment roles, employees receive a share of the sales they make. While commission roles often include a basic salary/wage, this is not always the case.|
|Piece work||Employees are paid a set amount for every unit they produce – common in the manufacturing and textiles sector.|
|Tips||Tips received from a customer directly, such as in a restaurant, do not form part of the employee's pay, as they are the property of the employee and are not paid by the employer. However, you can treat tips to your staff as normal pay if they’re paid into your till – this includes tips added to your customers’ card or cheque payments.|
How to pay freelancers and self-employed staff
Hiring a freelancer or self-employed worker can be a great option if you just need a bit of extra help on a specific project.
Another key advantage is that they take care of their own national insurance contributions, and do not need to be enrolled in the company pension scheme – meaning there are fewer costs for your business to manage. They also don’t have the same entitlement to sick pay, and can be used more flexibly than conventional members of staff.
Your pay arrangements will depend on the individual freelancer. You may agree to track hours worked on the project using an online system, or you may simply pay them per piece of work produced.
Digital payment platforms like PayPal are popular but not available in certain countries, while a bank transfer is almost universally available but can take days to arrive.
Whatever structure you decide on, make sure you draw up a contract that sets out exactly what is expected from both the company and the freelancer, and that protects you in the event they do not deliver the agreed work.
As well as their normal salary or wages, you may also need to pay employees (and thus record details of) a number of other types of pay.
- Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)
- Maternity Pay
- Paternity Pay
- Adoption Pay
- Parental Leave
Of these, sick pay is the most common. For more info on this topic, see our full guide to managing sickness absence.
As an employer, it’s your responsibility to calculate the amount of deductions you need to take from each employee's pay.
There are three deductions you’ll need to work out for all employees:
- Income tax
- National Insurance
- Pension contributions
Other deductions that may apply include:
- Student loan repayments
- Payroll Giving donations
- Child maintenance payments
To make deductions for tax and national insurance, you’ll need each employee’s tax code and National Insurance category letter. We’ll now examine each in turn.
Finding your new employee’s tax code
To work out your new employee’s tax code, use the gov.uk tax code calculator.
For most employees, the information you need should be on the P45 form they received when they left their previous job or stopped claiming jobseeker’s allowance, so make sure to request this before your new employee starts. If this doesn’t apply, then they’ll need to complete a new starter checklist – you can find a helpful new starter checklist template on this gov.uk page.
Finding your new employee’s National Insurance letter
Working out what national insurance letter your new hire should have is even more straightforward – simply check the table below and see which criteria apply.
|Category letter||Employee group|
|A||The majority of employees; anyone who doesn’t fit into the categories listed below will have a national insurance letter of A.|
|B||Married women and widows entitled to pay reduced national insurance.|
|C||Employees over the state pension age.|
|J||Employees who can defer National Insurance because they’re already paying it in another job.|
|H||Apprentices aged under 25.|
|M||Employees aged under 21.|
|Z||Employees under 21 who can defer National Insurance because they’re already paying it in another job.|
|X||Employees who do not have to pay National Insurance, such as those aged under 16.|
All this can be stressful – especially if you’ve got more than a handful of employees. Thankfully, payroll software takes away much of the pain.
Once you’ve entered the correct information, the process of calculating and removing deductions can be automated – saving you time and money. Simply complete the form at the top of the page to compare quotes now.
There’s no doubt that setting up a commission structure can seem daunting – especially for entrepreneurs that have no experience in sales. While you can theoretically change your model as your company evolves, you may struggle to attract talented sales people in the first place if the package you offer is not as attractive as those of your competitors.
To help, we’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of some common commission models, starting with the ‘salary plus commission’ model.
Base salary plus commission
This is used by companies all over the world in a huge variety of sectors, as it offers a good middle ground between encouraging competition and providing stability that fosters loyalty.
The basic idea is simple: you pay the salesperson a base salary that covers their living costs in poor months, but also allow them to earn commission – a percentage of every sale (usually deducted from the gross profit associated with that sale) that increases their overall earnings.
The devil, of course, is in the detail – you’ll need to set the relationship between salary and commission correctly to ensure that your salespeople are properly incentivised, but also feel supported and valued by the company.
The average split is 60:40, with 60% of total pay being base salary and 40% being commission. However, the right split for you will depend on your industry. If you're selling a technical product that needs to be explained to the customer (such as pharmaceuticals), then you would expect to make a lower volume of sales. In such cases, a less aggressive pay mix may be more appropriate, such as 75:25.
To set the ratio accurately, consider the following factors:
- The level of difficulty of each sale
- The amount of autonomy the salesperson has – do your salespeople need to generate their own leads? What level of technical support do they receive?
- How much experience is necessary – does selling the product require a high level of technical knowledge, for example?
- The complexity of your sales cycle – if there are several steps involving multiple members of staff, the relative reward for each should be lower.
- How many leads your salespeople work with at a given time – if they have fewer opportunities to make sales, then the reward for each sale should be higher.
There are two other features you may also want to implement in your base salary plus commission model.
A sales accelerator
The idea of a sales accelerator is that when a salesperson exceeds their target, they get paid more commission. For example, let’s say the salesperson normally gets 40% of the gross profit they generate – once they exceed their target, this percentage could double to 80%, or they could even receive commission that’s equal to 100% of the gross profit they generate above their target. The upside of this is that you keep your top performing sales employees motivated even in very successful months; the downside is that you have to make sure you have sufficient resources to cover rewarding this high level of performance.
A cut-off threshold
A cut-off threshold is essentially a way of protecting yourself in poor months. The idea is that commission is only paid at a certain level of sales – once the salesperson has made enough to cover their costs (such as their base salary, car allowance, and other expenses) for example. Alternatively, you could pay a reduced rate of commission on sales significantly below the target level (e.g. pay 20% commission instead of 40% if the salesperson makes under 50% of their target).
Under a commission only pay structure, salespeople are only paid for the sales they make and have no base salary to fall back on. This has obvious benefits for the company, as your salespeople take on all the risk – if they fail, you lose very little. However, using this model makes it difficult to predict your expenses and keep control of your budget, as you have only a vague idea of how much you’ll be paying out from month to month. It also encourages a cut-throat sales culture where the sale is the be all and end all, and so probably isn’t suitable for products that require an ongoing relationship (such as commercial software). You also may struggle with employee loyalty – without feeling supported by the company, your most talented salespeople may simply go elsewhere when they receive a better offer.
Base salary only
A base salary only pay structure does what it says on the tin – employees are not paid any commission for sales they make, and only receive a fixed salary. While this may make it much easier to forecast company budgets over longer periods, such a structure may dissuade talented salespeople from joining your company, as the competitive aspect and promise of high financial rewards is the reason a lot of people go into sales in the first place. On the plus side, such an approach does reduce the stress of your sales employees, and may be the right fit for roles that are less focused on direct selling and more on forging long-term relationships with customers or clients (such as account managers).
Whatever model you choose, make sure it is simple enough to be understood by your sales staff and potential new hires. Everyone needs to be able to easily work out how much money they’re likely to make under your sales pay structure.
Regardless of how you send it, the payslip must include:
- The amount paid before any deductions (‘gross’ wages)
- The amount taken for deductions such as income tax and National Insurance
- The amount paid after deductions (‘net’ wages)
Here’s an example of a typical UK payslip:
As you can see, this contains a lot of information in addition to what is legally required.
Key things to note include:
- The tax code (in the top right corner under deductions)
- The employee’s National Insurance number (in the bottom right corner)
- The running totals section (bottom left) – This shows how much has been paid by both the employee and employer in various categories, since both the start of employment and the start of the current tax year.
The easiest way to create payslips is through your payroll software. However, not all payroll software has this feature, and if you only have a handful of employees, you may find it more cost efficient to produce a sample payslip in Microsoft Excel and then manually change the details for your employees each month. However, due to the time that this involves, this should very much be treated as a last resort for startups in their early stages.
Find the right payroll software, and creating payslips is a doddle. To discover your perfect fit, simply complete the form at the top of the page to compare bespoke quotes from a range of top payroll providers.
To send an FPS, you’ll need to enter the following information into your payroll software:
- Employer registration details (such as a PAYE reference or Accounts Office Reference)
- Personal details for each employee listed (Name, address, National Insurance number, date of birth, gender etc.)
- Employment information for each employee listed (starter and leaver information, whether they are a company director)
- Year-to-date figures for each employee listed (Tax and National Insurance contributions)
- Figures for the relevant period for each employee listed (including payment date, gross pay, and the amount deducted for National Insurance and tax)
PAYE reference/Accounts Office Reference
These details can be found on the Payslip Booklet you should have received from HMRC when you registered as an employer. An example of this is shown below:
Source: G Tax Blog
If you’re just starting out and can’t yet afford commercial payroll software, you can use HMRC’s Basic PAYE Tools. This has a number of limitations, however – it can’t produce payslips, for example – and should only be used by businesses with fewer than 10 employees.
Have 11 or more employees? Finding the right payroll software could have a huge impact on your business. Fill in the form at the top of the page to compare bespoke quotes now.
If you need to, you can also send the FPS early (if your payroll staff are going on holiday, for example).
You’ll also need to send a corrected FPS if any information changes, such as if an employee leaves or changes tax code.
You can’t send reports for the new tax year before March.
Find the right payroll software and the FPS needn’t cause you too much stress – many packages now allow you to automate much of the work involved, saving you time and money every payday.
To compare quotes from top payroll providers, simply complete the form at the top of the page.
Ways to pay
The gov.uk page on Paying PAYE clearly sets out all the ways you can pay your PAYE bill, and guides you through the process. There are a range of electronic options available, including direct debit, debit or corporate credit card, bank transfer, and the government’s Faster Payments service. Alternatively, you can pay in person at a bank/building society, or pay by cheque through the post.
For electronic payments, payment must be made by the 22nd of the next tax month if you pay monthly, or by the 22nd after the end of the quarter if you pay quarterly.
If you pay by cheque through the post, then the deadline is the 19th of the month.
If you’re routinely paying less than £1,500 per month, you might be able to pay quarterly instead, so make sure you contact HMRC if this is the case.
Unsurprisingly, good payroll software makes this whole process much easier – you’ll know exactly how much you need to pay, and can quickly pay HMRC. Complete the form at the top of the page to compare top payroll providers now.
You send details of new and updated information to HMRC via the Full Payment Submission form discussed above.
You need to inform HMRC if an employee (deep breath):
- Takes a leave of absence
- Starts receiving a workplace pension/joins or leaves a contracted out pension
- Changes their home address
- Becomes a director of your business
- Reaches State Pension age
- Goes to work abroad
- Goes on jury service
- Turns 16
- Is called up as a reservist
- Changes gender
If you need help working out National Insurance after you’ve changed payday, refer to this gov.uk guidance on aligning payroll to the correct tax period.
Most payroll software can make it easy to change your payday, automatically working out the correct deductions and saving you a massive headache. Complete the form at the top of the page to find the right fit for your business.
While there’s no doubt that using a payroll provider can have a transformative impact on your business, it can be hard to know where to start. That’s why we’ve put together this comparison table to give you an idea of what’s out there.
|Moorepay||A trusted provider with a full range of payroll services.|
|Iris||Outsourcing specialists with over 40 years of experience.|
|Payescape||A straightforward service with excellent customer support and employee self-service platform.|
How payroll services and software can help you: a summary
As is covered in this article, payroll software and services can help small business owners with:
- Deductions and tracking: easily work out deductions and keep track of the different ways your staff are paid
- Payslips: automatically produce payslips every payday
- FSP: send pay data to HMRC with the click of a button
- PAYE/HMRC payments: instantly know exactly how much you need to pay HMRC every month, and avoid being fined for late or inaccurate payments
- Changing payday and NI: change payday whenever you need to, and have the new National Insurance contributions worked out automatically
Click on the links above to revisit the relevant parts of the article.
Payroll software and services can also allow your business to:
- Get live business updates with integrated HR
- Securely store your data
- Cut down on paper with online payslips
- Have an experienced professional at your service if you need any help
These benefits mean that finding the right payroll partner can transform your business and save you time and money.
Fill in the form at the top of the page now to get bespoke quotes from a range of top payment providers and take the first step to making your business more efficient, more profitable, and more successful.
Small business payroll FAQ
Can I do payroll without an accountant or payroll services?
Yes, you can, but this is definitely a risky decision. Using a dedicated payroll service provider will mean you can have confidence that the data submitted is accurate, and make sure you avoid any nasty penalties down the line. That’s not to mention the hours you won’t have to spend stressing over every little detail, and making sure you hit that submission deadline every month.
Can I do payroll without software?
No, not really. Working everything out with a pen and paper will take countless hours that you could use to concentrate on what you’re best at – growing your business. If you only have a handful of employees, you may be able to get away with using free payroll software – but as soon as your business grows beyond this, you really need a professional payroll solution.
What if I make payroll mistakes?
If you handle payroll yourself, making the odd mistake is unlikely to have a disastrous impact on your business. HMRC fines won’t be ruinous if you spot the mistake and correct it quickly, and employees who are underpaid in one month can be overpaid in the next. However, it’s hard to put a cost on the constant stress of having to worry that your figures are correct, and of having to worry about meeting each submission deadline. A payroll provider takes this stress away, and lets you focus on all the other things that are crucial to the success of your business.