HR Corner: Files, a Tedious but Needed Task

Files, a Tedious but Needed Task

Tom Cruise (think A Few Good Men) would never have shown up to the courtroom unprepared. Neither should you. Records may be a pain to maintain and worse to file, but they are so critical when you need them. Whether you’re a small-, medium- or large-sized business, creditable and professional employee personnel files are a MUST. The paperwork may seem insignificant, but properly created and maintained files can help protect you in legal matters. If you already have your personnel files in order, give yourself a high-five for your human resources diligence. If your “files” are more abstract, such as the throw everything-in-a-shoebox filing system, these easy steps can help you create and maintain your personnel files

According to the Human Resources Department at the University of California – Berkeley, a personnel file is “a historical log or record of information pertaining to a staff employee from the date of hire.” The term “file” does not have to be limited to paper documents; items such as e-mails, calendar appointments and other documents relevant to an employee’s employment may be considered.

The first step is to head to your local office supply store or supermarket, and purchase file folders. Label each file with an employee’s name and date of hire. For future employees, start their files on their date of hire. Remember that temporary and seasonal employees need to have files as well.

The second step is to fill the folders with documents relevant to each employee, but not so confidential that you wouldn’t want a co-worker (or jury) to see them. According to, an online legal resource, relevant documents include, but are not limited to, job applications and descriptions; performance/discipline evaluations; attendance records; policy acknowledgments; complaints/ accolades from customers and/or co-workers; any contracts or written agreements between employee and employer; and other forms relating to benefits or emergency contacts.

Medical records, on the other hand, need to be locked away in a separate cabinet1. Also kept confidential should be documents that identify an individual’s race and sex, immigration forms, disability forms and veteran status documents2. Let’s review: a Post-it® with pertinent information? Save it. Last month’s doctor’s note? Secure it somewhere else. If you have other questions as to what else should be kept in personnel files, research your individual state labor laws.

The last step is to keep these files in a secure location with limited access. While these files can protect you, be cautioned that many state and federal laws entitle employees to review their files.1 If an employee is entitled to see his or her file’s contents, use discretion and supervision. More importantly, remember to have the employee sign a release before providing any personnel information to a third party.2

Depending on your current “filing system,” it may take a few minutes (or several days) to put your files in order, but they will keep you safe in the long run. Make sure to collect all the necessary documents, label and date your folders, and keep confidential documents in a separate, locked cabinet. With these simple steps, a filing system doesn’t need to be expensive to be effective, but it does need to be organized.

1 Bahls, Jane Easter, “What Should Your Personnel Files Contain?” Entrepreneur, employmentlaw/article79388.html, Sept 2005.
2 Morey, Penny, “Help & How To,” ask/answer10256.htm, July 2008.