Tuesday, 31 July 2012 20:00

How to manage employment tax risk

When a company assumes the role of payroll administrator, there are considerations to protect the assets of the company from risk related to various employment taxes.

“There are several circumstances that may cause a company to run the risk of becoming noncompliant or considered evasive of employment withholding tax obligations, requiring employers by law to withhold taxes from their employees, including federal income taxes and other taxes required by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act such as Social Security and Medicare taxes,” says Walter McGrail, senior manager, Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC.

Although not discussed here, these same requirements apply to other  employer taxes such as FUTA and taxes required by any states.

Smart Business spoke with McGrail about employment tax risks and what companies can do to mitigate them.

What are employment tax risks, and are they a realistic issue?

Companies are required to withhold taxes and remit them to the Internal Revenue Service via an authorized financial institution, as established by the Federal Tax Deposit Requirements. When the taxes withheld are not remitted, or not remitted in a timely manner, the company may be liable for penalties, interest, or, in the case of proven evasion, prosecution. Noncompliance may result in penalties and interest, whereas evasion may subject the responsible parties to criminal and civil sanctions

According to the IRS, for fiscal years 2009 to 2011, it initiated approximately 500 investigations into employment tax evasion. Of these cases, more than 40 percent were investigated, recommended for prosecution, indicted and ultimately sentenced.  Additionally, of those sentenced, 80 percent were incarcerated by means of either federal prison, halfway house, home detention, or some combination, lasting an average of nearly 24 months.

These penalties are most commonly levied against the responsible parties, including, but not limited to, corporate officers, shareholders, members and partners.

What are the most common methods, or schemes, related to employment tax evasion?

There are several common scenarios that could result in evasion or simply result in noncompliance when it comes to employment taxes. The most common, according to the IRS, involve pyramiding, utilizing unreliable intermediaries to remit the tax and misclassifying wages or salaries based on worker status or officers’ compensation treated as distributions. Due to the lengths someone may go to in order to evade employment taxes, there is even a listed transaction related to employment and the use of offshore employee leasing to evade these taxes.

If employment taxes are automatically withheld, how can companies be put at risk?

Companies are at risk when withheld taxes have not been paid in a timely manner, as prescribed by the IRS. Fraud can be an integral part of employment tax evasion.

Pyramiding is one of the more common practices. This involves the employer not remitting the taxes and using the monies to cover other liabilities or operating shortfalls. If the employer continuously uses this practice to continue the operation of the company, the amount can accrue over time (pyramid) to the point where business operations cannot recoup the funds utilized and the company is left with a tax liability and no cash. The frequent result is the business going under.

Unreliable payers can also be an issue. A payer can be either a third party or related (someone employed by the company). Both types of payers can be instrumental in causing the company to be at risk of noncompliance.

Third-party payers generally fall into one of two categories: Payroll Service Providers (PSP) and Professional Employer Organizations (PEO). PSPs typically assume the role of payroll administrator and the responsibility for making employment tax payments and filing the appropriate employment tax returns. PEOs effectively lease employees and assume the role of human resources, managing the administrative, personnel and payroll functions for the company. Tax issues can arise when either type of third-party payer is in control of employment taxes or the company dissolves. This can leave employment taxes unpaid.

If the company utilizes an internal department or employee to pay employment taxes, there are different ways the company can be exposed to risk. One way could be rooted in fraud. If the payer were to pay taxes but not properly credit them to the company’s tax account, the company would still have an employment tax liability and no funds to pay the taxes owed.

Much like other frauds that involve payables, funds can be paid or transferred to a taxing authority while being applied to a different account. The company believes its tax liabilities are being properly paid and may not become aware of an issue for months or years.

How can companies safeguard against employment tax evasion and noncompliance?

There are no guarantees, but one way to reduce possible exposure is to exercise due diligence when engaging a third-party or related payer.

Monitoring is essential to the process. The company can insist on paying all federal taxes electronically, utilizing the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), which allows users to access tax payment history to ensure payments were made and applied to the appropriate tax account. Additionally, verifying and matching the amounts paid against the information reported on the Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return (Form 941) can aid in reducing noncompliance and the possibility of employment tax evasion.

Additionally, ask your CPA to look at wages and related withholdings as part of the tax return preparation for your company.

 

Walter McGrail, CPA, is senior manager of Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC. Reach him at (866) 717-1607 or wmm@cendsel.com.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC

Published in Chicago
Thursday, 01 September 2011 14:02

How to approach ethics in the workplace

For many companies, the issue of ethics is pushed to the back burner while executives focus on more tangible business concerns.

However, there are many reasons that employers should take ethics seriously, from exposure to costly lawsuits to allowing a workplace culture in which no one knows what is and isn’t allowed.

“Ethics and employment practices are interrelated and attention to both should be paid by employers of all sizes,” says Amanda Shults, chief marketing officer for Clark-Theders Insurance Agency. “Employers must understand their exposures and options to manage the risk.”

Smart Business spoke with Shults about how to approach ethics in the workplace and why ethical behavior matters.

How important is the issue of ethics in the workplace?

There is a difference between acts that are unethical and those that are illegal. Employers must determine how those types of acts will be tolerated within the organization.

Many factors must be considered when running an organization: preparing budgets, hiring, creating procedures, etc. Striving for high professional and ethical standards in all business activities and in its stakeholders needs to be at the top of that list.

It is very important for business owners to keep in mind that an emphasis on high ethical standards and the ability to exhibit best practices go hand in hand.

How can employers ensure that employees take ethics seriously?

Employers should take steps to create a workplace environment that promotes a culture of support and respect for all. That includes having written ethics standards or codes of conduct that are read and signed by each employee annually.

Acceptable ethical practices may vary from one person to the next, so employers should give clear instruction of what is expected when an employee discovers unethical behavior, including whom they should contact and how it will be managed. Some employees may feel uncertainty, or even fear, about what to do in the event that they discover unethical behavior within the company. Employers should provide multiple avenues, some anonymous, to report unethical happenings in order to prevent that uncertainty and fear.

Another way to promote the importance of ethical behavior is by providing meaningful and relevant training on the importance of ethics and how to handle ethical dilemmas. It is sad but true that most employees will experience some type of unethical act. Because of this, it is important to offer resources for employees who need advice on how to handle situations that may arise.

What are some strategies to protect a business from unethical behavior?

In an ethical workplace, employers must consider the impact of their employment practices, as lawsuits in this area should be a major concern for employers of all sizes. You can’t manage the risk if you don’t understand your exposures and options.

The three most common employment-related lawsuits today are wrongful termination, discrimination and sexual harassment. Unethical behaviors such as intimidation, harassment, bullying, bribes, theft and Internet usage can lead to these types of lawsuits.

Two solid strategies that go hand in hand to protect your business are comprehensive employment practices that include ethical standards and employment practices liability (EPL) insurance, a policy that defends your company against a suit or that pays the claim should you lose.

Emphasizing ethical behavior through communication and education will allow employers to rely on the skills and abilities of their people to make the right decisions.  Although workshops, training, or insurance policies targeting employment issues may seem like another expense, they can ultimately reduce your overall cost of doing business by preventing an allegation, suit or claim.

What can employers do to change the culture if ethical behavior has not been a priority?

Communication is vital in promoting ethical behavior in the workplace. An employer could begin with a simple position statement about the significance of ethical behavior. Once everyone hears that message, the company can begin to look at its current practices and identify areas that need attention or that may already promote ethical behavior.

Next, determine resources that you may have to assist in helping you develop best practices that promote ethical behaviors, both internally and externally. The more people who are engaged in the process, the more likely it is that there will be enthusiasm and appreciation surrounding the efforts to create an ethical environment. In addition, rewarding ethical behavior and punishing unethical acts consistently is recommended for effective ethical practices.

If an employer is comfortable doing so, encourage employees to share ethical dilemmas they encounter, the options and consequences they considered, and the solution they chose. Ask if they are satisfied with their decisions, or whether their choice keeps them up at night.

Finally, lead by example. Actions are stronger than words, and your employees will take note of your behavior.

What results can employers expect from implementing these strategies?

As with the old saying, ‘Birds of a feather, flock together,’ organizations that promote high standards of ethical behavior may experience better recruitment and retention of the best people. Additionally, these changes may strengthen the reputation and brand of the organization, promote open and frequent conversations on ethical issues, support and empower employees, align daily work activities with the overall purpose of the company and ultimately cultivate a more satisfying work environment for all.

Amanda Shults is chief marketing officer at Clark-Theders Insurance Agency Inc. Reach her at (513) 644-1278 or ashults@ctia.com.

Published in Cincinnati