How to Manage Employee Files Working in HR

My first HR job was as an HR Assistant. One of the first tasks I was given was to tackle a huge stack of paperwork that needed to go in employee files. As I eyed the mountain of paperwork and wondered if I had made a mistake in taking this temp job, my trainer explained that the employee file is the heart of HR documentation and was a good way to start learning the job.

Fast forward ten years, and I can now look back on countless times that I saw the value of well-organized and complete employee files. Whether it is supporting the decision to promote someone, justifying corrective action or providing documentation in a wrongful termination situation, managing employee files is a big part of HR.

It is important to have several different files for all your employee paperwork. In today’s post I will look at some ways to ensure your files are in good shape.

Main Employee File

The main employee file should contain the following:

  • Most new hire paperwork
  • Job application and resume
  • Performance reviews
  • Corrective action
  • Training certifications
  • Pay increases
  • Exit paperwork
  • Other work performance and job history documentation

This is a lot of paperwork, so classification files work best. They allow you to sort information on separate tabs for easy access later on. Shoving a bunch of paper in a manila folder can be a nightmare to sort through when you have years and years of paperwork to go through to find information on something that happened in the past.

Items to Keep Separate from the Main Employee File

These items should be kept in separate files:

  • Investigation notes
  • Medical information (e.g. insurance forms, work comp paperwork, requests for reasonable accommodation)
  • Form I-9
  • References
  • EEO voluntary identification form
  • Other paperwork that alludes to a protected class

Investigation Notes

It is fine for corrective action such as written warnings to be kept in the main file, but investigation notes should be kept in a separate file. If an employee views their file, you do not want them to read detailed notes about an investigation they were involved in. This could reveal confidential information about the complainant, accused or witnesses.

Having file folders clearly labeled with the date and investigation name are best. Your notes should be clear and detailed, so even after you have left the company, someone not familiar with the investigation can figure out what happened. Include information on the resolution and corrective action taken. Also include any other materials relevant to the investigation (e.g. pictures, screenshots, security camera footage).

Medical Information

Medical information must always be kept in a different place than the main employee file. Medical information may include insurance forms, work comp claims, leave of absence paperwork, reasonable accommodation requests or anything else that gives information about medical conditions or history. A file cabinet that contains a medical file for each employee can be a good way to ensure this information is separate from the main file.

Form I-9

Form I-9 must be kept in a different place than the main employee file because it may indicate an employee’s national origin and citizenship status, both of which are protected classes. Having a binder organized alphabetically with all I-9s for your company is an easy way to store this form. U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is entitled to view these forms, so a binder is an organized way to show that you are in compliance with I-9 requirements.

Other Forms that Should be Kept Out of the Main File

What References should be kept separate from the main file for confidentiality reasons. In many states, employees have a right to view their file, so it is best to keep these out of the main employee file. In addition, paperwork that alludes to a protected class should not be in the main file. This includes things like the voluntary EEO identification form and child support garnishments.

In the End…

Your employee files should contain necessary paperwork and not get too weighted down with unsubstantiated complaints and every little piece of paper that relates to the employee’s work. Remember to keep your notes clear and easy to read to avoid any confusion in the future.

Are your files in good shape? 

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.


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