Co-employment is a contractual relationship, in which a business and a professional employer organization (PEO) share certain employment responsibilities. This arrangement is advantageous to organizations that want to mitigate some of the costs and liability associated with being an employer. Outsourcing with a co-employer also allows owners and executive leaders to focus more of their efforts on growing their business and less on HR.

How does co-employment work?

Despite some misconceptions, co-employment does not mean employers cede ownership or lose control of their business. In actuality, clients continue to manage their employees and day-to-day operations, while the PEO focuses on HR-related tasks, such as payroll, benefits administration and regulatory compliance.

What are the benefits of a co-employment relationship?

High-quality, forward-thinking PEOs use data insights, evolving technology and skilled advisors to help clients respond strategically to regulatory changes and workforce trends, thereby allowing them to remain competitive and maximize growth. Other benefits of co-employment include:

  • Access to Fortune 500®-caliber benefits

    One of the main reasons small and midsized businesses enter into co-employment arrangements is the high-quality, cost-effective health insurance that it affords them. In addition to supplying the coverage, PEOs typically manage enrollment, claims and other aspects of plan administration. Some even offer benefits beyond medical and dental insurance, like retirement savings plans, education reimbursement, commuter benefits and more.
  • Full-service payroll

    Employers who are struggling to find time to run payroll or are being penalized for mistakes often find welcomed respite in co-employment. PEOs may administer aspects of payroll on the client’s behalf, including calculating wages and deductions, paying employees, and filing employment taxes with government agencies. Many are also capable of integrating payroll with timekeeping and insurance services, which limits repetitive data entry and reduces errors.
  • Compliance expertise

    Compliance may seem like a daunting challenge, but co-employment can provide peace of mind, especially for businesses that aren’t prepared to handle a regulatory oversight. PEOs have risk and compliance experts who keep up with evolving HR regulations and work with clients to develop proactive strategies that can help protect them from fines and penalties. Areas of focus include tax reporting, unemployment and workers’ compensation claims, and workplace policies.
  • Workers’ compensation coverage

    Meeting state requirements for workers’ compensation insurance is one less headache for businesses in co-employment arrangements. PEOs provide coverage for their clients and handle any claims that may arise. They also can conduct safety audits and recommend employee training programs to help limit workplace injuries and employer liability.
  • HR support

    Businesses that don’t have or want to hire dedicated internal resources for HR can rely on a PEO for their HR needs. In co-employment arrangements, clients may have a dedicated HR expert or team, depending on the level of support required, that provides strategic and administrative services. If, on the other hand, employers have their own resources, they can continue to use them and may partner with the PEO whenever additional expertise or assistance is necessary.
  • Talent management strategy

    The benefit packages that come with co-employment can help businesses appear more attractive to prospective talent, but that’s just the beginning. PEOs will often assist with onboarding, employee training and performance management. Some also provide strategic services that can help employers adapt to changing workplace demographics and the increasing prevalence of contract and short-term workers.

Are there potential risks to co-employment?

The benefits of co-employment – compliance support, HR administration, growth opportunities, etc. – generally outweigh any potential risks. However, if a PEO is not certified by the IRS and it fails to pay taxes on behalf of a client, the client can be held responsible and penalized. This is true even if the business already paid the money for the taxes to the PEO as part of the service contract. And in the event that a business joins or leaves a co-employment arrangement mid-year, it may be subject to a wage-base restart for certain payroll taxes.

How can you avoid co-employment risks?

Employers can avoid co-employment risks by partnering with PEOs that meets the rigorous background, financial and reporting requirements necessary for certification with the IRS and the Employer Services Assurance Corporation (ESAC). Certified (CPEOs) offer these advantages:

  • CPEOs are solely responsible for the payment of their client’s federal employment taxes
  • Businesses can join or leave a CPEO at any time of the year without facing a wage-base tax restart
  • CPEO clients can continue to claim any tax credits for which they would normally be eligible if they were not in a co-employment arrangement

What is not co-employment?

Co-employment is sometimes mistaken for employee leasing and joint employment, but they are not one in the same. They key distinction between them lies in how the employer responsibilities are allocated.

What does employee leasing mean?

Employee leasing is an arrangement where a staffing firm provides a business with employees for a temporary assignment and when it’s completed, they return to the agency. Co-employment is different because PEOs don’t supplement a client’s workforce with additional labor and should the relationship between the PEO and the employer end, the employees remain with the client.

What does joint employment mean?

Joint employment means that two distinct employers govern the same employees. In a typical example, both parties would have input on employee supervision, wages, schedules, performance and disciplinary action or termination. With co-employment, on the other hand, only the client business, not the PEO, manages hiring decisions and the daily activities of the workforce.

Why choose ADP for co-employment?

ADP TotalSource® is the largest PEO in the United States and has proven expertise in all areas of human resources. Our products and services are designed to help businesses adapt to changing workplace trends and improve their bottom line. Some of the strategic solutions that sets TotalSource apart from the competition include:

  • Data insights and reports
    While some PEOs offer limited data, TotalSource provides benchmark analytics that allow employers to see how their business compares to others in their industry.
  • Custom success plans
    TotalSource is the only PEO that develops personalized HR plans covering benefits, risk and talent optimization that align with a business’s strategy and growth objectives.
  • Protection
    ADP helps its clients limit their liability by providing guidance on workplace safety, interviews, terminations, employee discipline and mandatory leave laws. In some cases, we can also assist with employee lawsuits.
  • Strategic talent management
    TotalSource goes beyond basic recruitment technology and provides full talent support, including performance management, compensation analysis, supply and demand reports, and engagement and coaching strategy.

Frequently asked questions about co-employment

What is the definition of co-employment?

Co-employment exists when a business shares employment responsibilities with a PEO, but still maintains full control of its daily operations and its employees.

Is co-employment the same as joint employment?

Co-employment and joint employment are not the same, largely because of workforce management. In a co-employment arrangement, only one party makes labor-related decisions, but in joint employment, both parties have input on wages, hours, new hires, terminations, etc.

What is a PEO relationship?

PEOs serve as the employer of record for a business for tax purposes. This type of relationship also helps employers manage payroll, HR, benefits, workers’ compensation and regulatory compliance so they have more time to pursue other business goals.

What is a co-employment agreement?

A co-employment agreement is a shared risk platform that helps insulate PEO clients from the complexities of employment regulations.

Is co-employment illegal?

Co-employment is legal. In fact, the IRS supports the PEO community with a certification process that helps businesses find a PEO that meets its strict standards. Business owners who want the utmost reliability and security often partner with an IRS-certified CPEO.1

1The IRS does not endorse any particular certified professional employer organization. For more information on certified professional employer organizations, go to

This article provides practical information concerning the subject matter and is provided with the understanding that ADP is not rendering legal or tax advice or other professional services.