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Payroll is an essential function of any business that involves managing employee compensation. It includes calculating employee salaries, withholding taxes and other deductions, and ensuring that employees are paid accurately and on time.

In this guide, we'll explore the basics of payroll, including legal requirements, calculating gross pay, withholding taxes, paying employees, record-keeping and reporting, outsourcing payroll, common mistakes to avoid, and payroll software and tools.

What is Payroll?

Payroll refers to the process of managing and processing employee compensation, including wages, salaries, bonuses, and deductions. This process includes calculating employee pay, withholding taxes, and other deductions, and ensuring that employees are paid accurately and on time.

Preparing for Payroll

Before you can start running payroll, there are a few steps you need to take to prepare:

To ensure compliance with federal and state laws, businesses need to familiarize themselves with the following regulations:

  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA): sets minimum wage, overtime pay, and record-keeping requirements for businesses.
  • Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA): regulates employee benefit plans.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): mandates that eligible employees receive job-protected, unpaid leave for certain family or medical reasons.
  • State labor laws: vary by state and may include minimum wage, overtime pay, meal and rest break requirements, and other provisions.

Setting up payroll system

To manage payroll effectively, you'll need to set up a system that includes:

  • Payroll software: a tool that can calculate employee pay, withhold taxes, and generate reports.
  • Payroll bank account: a separate bank account to process payroll transactions.
  • Payroll schedule: a set schedule for when employees will be paid.

Collecting employee information

To ensure accurate payroll processing, you'll need to collect and maintain the following information for each employee:

  • Social Security number
  • Tax withholding information
  • Pay rate and pay schedule
  • Employee benefits and deductions

Calculating Gross Pay

Gross pay is the total amount of pay an employee earns before any deductions are taken out. Calculating gross pay depends on the type of employee and their compensation structure:

Hourly vs. salaried employees

Hourly employees are paid based on the number of hours they work. To calculate their gross pay, multiply the number of hours worked by the hourly rate. Salaried employees are paid a fixed amount, regardless of the number of hours worked.

Overtime pay

Non-exempt employees are entitled to overtime pay for any hours worked over 40 hours in a workweek. Overtime pay is calculated at a rate of 1.5 times the employee's regular pay rate.

Bonuses and incentives

Bonuses and incentives are additional employee payments for meeting specific performance goals or milestones. These payments are typically subject to federal and state taxes.


Deductions are amounts taken from an employee's paycheck to cover taxes, benefits, and other expenses. Common deductions include:

  • Federal and state taxes
  • Social Security and Medicare taxes
  • Health insurance premiums
  • Retirement contributions
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Withholding and Reporting Taxes

Employers are responsible for withholding and reporting taxes to comply with federal and state tax laws. This includes:

Federal and state taxes

Employers are required to withhold federal income tax, Social Security tax, and Medicare tax from employee paychecks. Employers are also responsible for paying federal unemployment taxes (FUTA) and state unemployment taxes (SUTA).

Social Security and Medicare taxes

Employers are required to withhold 6.2% for Social Security tax and 1.45% for Medicare tax from employee paychecks. Employers must also contribute an equal amount of Social Security and Medicare taxes for each employee.

Payroll tax forms

Employers are required to file several payroll tax forms with the federal government, including:

  • Form 941: reports quarterly payroll taxes.
  • Form W-2: reports annual wages and tax withholding for each employee.
  • Form 940: reports annual federal unemployment tax.

Tax deadlines and penalties

Employers must meet various tax deadlines to avoid penalties and interest charges. Deadlines include:

  • Quarterly payroll tax payments: due on the last day of the month following the end of the quarter.
  • Form 941: due by the end of the month following the end of the quarter.
  • Form W-2: due by January 31st.
  • Form 940: due by January 31st.

Paying Employees

Once you've calculated gross pay and withheld taxes, it's time to pay your employees. Here are some things to consider:

  • Payment methods: Several payment methods are available, including paper checks, direct deposit, and payroll debit cards.
  • Direct deposit vs. paper checks: Direct deposit is a popular payment method that allows employers to deposit pay directly into an employee's bank account. Paper checks are also an option but can be time-consuming and may have additional fees.
  • Pay schedules: Employers need to establish a regular pay schedule to ensure the timely payment of employees.
  • Special considerations for terminated employees: When an employee leaves the company, there are several things to consider, such as final paychecks, vacation pay, and severance pay.

Record-Keeping and Reporting

To comply with federal and state regulations, employers must maintain accurate payroll records and submit various reports. Here's what you need to know:

  • Record-keeping requirements: Employers must maintain records for each employee, including their name, address, Social Security number, wages, and tax withholding information.
  • Payroll reports: Employers must submit various payroll reports to the government, including quarterly payroll tax reports and annual wage and tax reports.
  • W-2 and 1099 forms: Employers must provide employees with a W-2 form that shows their annual wages and tax withholding. Employers must also provide independent contractors with a 1099 form that shows their yearly compensation.
  • Audits and investigations: Employers may be subject to audits and investigations by federal and state agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Labor (DOL).

Top Payroll Software and Tools

Payroll software can help businesses streamline payroll processing and reduce the risk of errors.

There are several popular payroll software options available, including:

  • QuickBooks Payroll
  • Gusto
  • ADP
  • Paychex
  • Zenefits

Payroll software typically includes features such as payroll processing, tax withholding, and direct deposit. Pricing varies based on the software provider and the number of employees.

Many payroll software providers offer integration with accounting and HR software, which can help businesses manage multiple functions in one system.

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What is Payroll Tax?

Payroll tax is a tax that employers withhold from employee paychecks and remit to the government on behalf of their employees. Payroll taxes include federal and state income tax, Social Security tax, and Medicare tax. These taxes are mandatory and serve to fund various government programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.

How to Calculate Payroll Taxes

Calculating payroll taxes can be a complex process. Here are the steps to follow:

  • Determine the employee's gross pay: This is the total amount of compensation an employee earns before any deductions are taken out.
  • Calculate Social Security tax: Multiply the employee's gross pay by 6.2% to determine the Social Security tax.
  • Calculate Medicare tax: Multiply the employee's gross pay by 1.45% to determine the Medicare tax.
  • Calculate federal income tax withholding: Determine the employee's tax withholding using the IRS tax withholding tables.
  • Calculate state income tax withholding: Determine the employee's state tax withholding using the state tax withholding tables.
  • Subtract deductions: Subtract any deductions, such as health insurance premiums or retirement contributions, from the employee's gross pay.
  • Calculate net pay: Subtract the total taxes and deductions from the employee's gross income to determine their net revenue.

Which Payroll Taxes are Paid by Employers?

Employers are responsible for paying several types of payroll taxes. These include:

  • Federal unemployment tax (FUTA): This tax is paid by employers to fund unemployment benefits for eligible employees.
  • State unemployment tax (SUTA): This tax is paid by employers to fund state unemployment benefits for eligible employees.
  • Social Security tax: Employers are required to pay an equal amount of Social Security tax for each employee.
  • Medicare tax: Employers are required to pay an equal amount of Medicare tax for each employee.

Payroll Outsourcing

Outsourcing payroll can be an attractive option for businesses that want to save time and reduce administrative costs. Outsourcing payroll has several benefits, such as reducing administrative costs and minimizing the risk of errors. However, outsourcing payroll also has disadvantages, such as losing control over the payroll process.

When choosing a payroll service provider, consider factors such as cost, reputation, and service offerings. Once you've chosen a payroll service provider, negotiate a contract outlining the services, fees, and service level agreements.

Common Payroll Mistakes to Avoid

Payroll mistakes can be costly and time-consuming to correct. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:

  • Misclassifying employees: Misclassifying employees as independent contractors can result in significant tax penalties and legal liabilities.
  • Failing to withhold taxes: Failing to withhold taxes can result in penalties and interest charges from the IRS and state tax agencies.
  • Late or incorrect payments: Late or incorrect payments can result in penalties, interest charges, and employee dissatisfaction.
  • Non-compliance with labor laws: Non-compliance with labor laws can result in fines, lawsuits, and damage to your business reputation.


Payroll is a critical function for any business that employs workers. Accurate and timely payroll processing is essential for maintaining compliance with federal and state regulations and keeping employees satisfied. By following the steps outlined in this guide, businesses can streamline payroll processing and minimize the risk of errors and penalties.

Hady ElHady
Hady is Content Lead at Layer.

Hady has a passion for tech, marketing, and spreadsheets. Besides his Computer Science degree, he has vast experience in developing, launching, and scaling content marketing processes at SaaS startups.

Originally published Apr 11 2023, Updated Jun 26 2023

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