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Coffee With Becky Harshberger

Among the bright lights of Hollywood, Entertainment Partners might not be a household name, but the work they do for productions is known by all. As the leader in entertainment payroll, workforce management and other production management solutions, EP is on a mission to digitize the paper-heavy back office processes of entertainment production. At the center of this effort is Becky Harshberger, vice president of payroll taxes at Entertainment Partners (EP). We recently took a few minutes to talk with her about the state of the industry, challenges that today’s payroll professionals face, and much more.

Describe your role for us.

I’m focused on payroll taxes in entertainment. More specifically, I spend a lot of time working with clients on risk management related to their taxes. Over time, I’ve shifted from being an operational leader to more of a strategic one, meaning I no longer oversee the day-to-day running of the tax department, and instead I think more long term.

How did you manage that shift from an operational to a strategic role?

To avoid getting drawn back into operational matters, I first had to make a physical shift – I moved into a new office to get away from what was going on, operationally, outside my door. Then, I set up regular one-hour availability slots with the two directors who reported to me. But outside those hours, I don’t reach out to them – they now reach out to me. So that helped me move on from my old responsibilities. I also did a lot of reading and journaling and that helped refine my thinking on how I could bring the most value to clients. The internal podcasts I now produce for employees and clients were a product of that thinking. They provide an outlet to share my vision as a thought leader in the entertainment space, keeping people informed about what’s happening, what’s on the horizon and common pitfalls to avoid.

Can you give us an example of the types of risks you help clients mitigate?

Sure. One involves someone who’s come to the U.S. and wants to work in the entertainment industry, but they’re not here on the right visa. So, hiring them as an independent contractor creates possible complications with workers’ comp, not to mention IRS and Department of Labor oversight. The other one is the exact opposite – someone wants to do a film in a foreign jurisdiction. Often, the destination country has a unique tax situation, and as a result they might get stopped at the airport leaving the country and asked to pay taxes they didn’t even know they were responsible for. It’s also possible that in such situations, if the movie or TV show is a big hit, the distribution rights could be sold to a distributor back in the country where it was filmed. And while there are various tax treaties that cover a lot of people working in foreign jurisdictions for up to 183 days, they specifically exclude artists and athletes. 

What would you say is the biggest challenge for payroll professionals today?

Keeping up with new tax laws. Every year, there are so many of them, whether they’re about minimum wage, sick leave, paid time off, etc. For 2019 alone, I think we saw over 100 applicable changes. So that keeps me up at night, since the entertainment industry depends on EP knowing these laws and the rules and having them embedded in our payroll systems. And it’s a challenge that never ends, because once we’re seemingly caught up, everything starts all over again on Jan. 1. Staying current with everything requires being involved with the American Payroll Association, doing research, having a good labor lawyer on staff, and sharing information across teams. You need a structure that lets you keep up with things like local taxes.

What do you like most about your role?

I love answering someone’s question so thoroughly that I address things they didn’t even know they asked about. As in, “Oh, I didn’t even realize I needed to know that, and it’s so helpful!”

How do you judge success in your position?

By the volume of new clients we get and how many of them we retain: If we’re losing clients or not gaining new ones, we’re just treading water. On the flip side, it’s so exciting to bring a client that used to be with a competitor over to EP and give them access to the leading experts and lawyers in payroll taxes.

If you could share one piece of advice with your peers, what would it be?

Follow morning and evening rituals. Activities such as doing yoga or making a list of priorities each morning help improve time management and reduce stress. Likewise, having a routine at the end of the day is very stabilizing.

Looking forward, what do you expect to be focused on over the next five years?

The content explosion, for starters. There are more shows than ever before, and so many ways to consume them, and all of that has created a shortage of available production accountants. At EP, we’re focused on addressing the high demand for expertise. We think automation can help bridge the gap and mitigate some of the common errors we see. Another focus area is making sure everything is available via cell phone – it’s no longer safe to assume employees will have ready access to their laptops. That’s one reason why we went with CIC Plus and now do our W-2s online. It’s just a different paradigm now with younger generations, who expect to have everything at their fingerprints. And I think we’ll see that mentality influencing changes across payroll, too, including in how people are paid.

What brought you to this career?

My degree is in marketing. When I graduated from college, I got a job working for a real estate partnership on their newsletters. Then the 1986 tax reform decimated that industry and I ended up becoming a recruiter of accounting and finance people. Within five years of doing that, I became an office manager and one of my biggest clients was Countrywide Mortgage, for whom I eventually went in-house. I then moved elsewhere to become an account executive and learned more about unemployment claims processing and came to understand payroll taxes. That all led me to Deloitte, where I worked in their payroll tax specialty area. I took classes through the American Payroll Association so that I could sharpen my skills and network with others. I passed the CPP exam, began teaching, and deepened my understanding of the IRS. EP was one of my clients at Deloitte. I feel like my fearlessness and willingness to take risks and not become complacent have been crucial in navigating all these career changes.

What would be your ideal job?

If I weren’t at EP, my ideal role would be running an internship program for college freshmen and sophomores, so that they could get a head start on knowing what they should major in and what career paths might be available to them.

If you could have dinner with three people outside your family, who would you choose?

  1. Paul Falcone – I’ve recommended his HR books to lots of people as they become managers.
  2. B.K.S. Iyengar – He helped popularize yoga, and yoga has been very important to my professional life.
  3. Bonnie Raitt – I admire her resilience and her music.

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