THE BLOG
01/13/2015 02:52 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

Don't Let Personnel Files Wear You Down

When you hear an employee come into the office and say, "I want to see my personnel file," does your heart sink a little? Are your personnel files in good order, or are they a task you've prioritized based upon the glamour and sheer joy you get from doing filing work?

Open the average personnel file and you will find one of two things--way too much paper, often not of the right kind, or not nearly enough. Both alternatives are as problematic as they are prevalent.

Make Personnel Files Resources
Files are supposed to contain helpful resources. If these helpful resources are not present or if materials that shouldn't be in the files are in them, there can be negative legal and employee relations' ramifications. If important documents are missing from a file, it will not provide needed information and documentary backup. Files with too much paper are harder to use, harder to maintain and, most importantly, may contain information that unnecessarily invites unwanted regulatory or employee attention.

What Should Go In A Personnel File? Examples of documents that could be placed in a personnel file include the employee's:
  • Employment application and resume
  • Benefit enrollment forms
  • Wage deduction authorizations and forms (for taxes, benefit, and other deductions)
  • Letters of commendation
  • Position transfer and promotion records
  • Wage actions
  • Disciplinary actions
  • Acknowledgement of human resources and other policy receipt
  • Safety and other training records
  • Attendance records (excluding records containing medical information)
  • Performance appraisals
  • Contact information

It's often best to maintain the original copy of these documents on file. Original signatures are more useful for legal purposes, and original documents make neater copies than do copies of copies of copies. Today, many HRIS systems permit scanning and retention of digital documents and even digital signatures. When using any type of digital filing system, encryption and security are most important, especially when handling sensitive and personal information.

The best files separate current information--such as current benefit enrollment forms--from records that are no longer used as a basis of an employment decision (e.g., copies of old W-4s, superseded benefit plan enrollment documents, etc.).

What Shouldn't Go Into A Personnel File? Confidential information may be retained in the same physical location but in a separate folder that is easily removed from the main personnel file. In this way, if the mail file needs to be accessed, the confidential information can be easily removed. Leave these things out of a personnel file (but maintain them separately):
  • Anything that the employee has not seen or doesn't know is in the file
  • Medical information about the employee, members of their families, and related people
  • The Immigration and Naturalization Service I-9 form
  • Investigation files for harassment and similar issues
  • References on the employee given by previous employers

Please don't be misled--maintaining information in other files doesn't automatically thwart access to those records by curious employees and compliance agencies. In many cases, the employee or agency can simply or through legal means get access to many of your records. The goal is to be thoughtful about both what you write down about an employee and how that information is maintained.

The first of the year is an excellent time to clean-up records and start anew. Be sure you are in compliance with legal requirements, and ensure that you are also keeping records that you can really use!

Next Steps
A third-party HR assessment/audit can pinpoint the good and bad in your current process for records maintenance, and give you the basis for a better system that is effective, efficient, relevant, compliant, and keeps you out of court. Give us a call and we'll be glad to discuss the scope of an audit/assessment. Just call 480.924.6101 or schedule an appointment online.

Margaret Jacoby, SPHR, is the founder and president of MJ Management Solutions,a human resources consulting firm that provides small businesses with a wide range of virtual and onsite HR solutions to meet their immediate and long-term needs. From ensuring legal compliance to writing customized employee handbooks to conducting sexual harassment training, businesses depend on our expertise and cost-effective human resources services to help them thrive. This article first appeared on the MJ Management Solutions blog.

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