Personnel Files – What You Need to Know

January 29th, 2014
Written by: Admin

A version of this article was originally prepared by TPO for one of its clients, an industry educational foundation.

Personnel files are a valuable and necessary tool in any workplace. They are the first line of defense against miscommunication and misunderstanding, as they should provide general information and a record about each employee from the date of hire, through changes and, when the time comes, termination. Retaining the correct information will make it easy to find employee information in one spot and essential should legal requirements or issues arise. 

The Essential Basics

There are three requirements that must be followed in setting up a personnel file structure:

  1. Medical/benefits related documents and general employee information must be kept in separate folders, but not necessarily separate files (see table page 2).
  2. I-9 forms are not part of the personnel files and must be kept completely separate in their own file or binder.
  3. Do not keep investigation materials in personnel files; including the employee complaints, witness interviews, employee interviews, findings, attorney recommendations, and resolutions. This information should be kept in a separate and locked file drawer.

Employee Access Protocol

Employee records are considered to be the property of the employer. Employee access to personnel files varies by state; check your local laws. Even though it is not likely to be a legal requirement, a good “people” practice is to honor requests to view personnel files using the following guidelines:

  • Employees must schedule time in advance to view their files with an HR representative–typically employees make a request to see their personnel files when they are troubled by something, and/or upset. Having time in advance allows you to make sure that the file is in order, organized, contains only the appropriate materials relevant to the folder, and is generally ready to be reviewed.
  • Always supervise the viewing.
  • Ensure that the viewing of the personnel file is documented in writing and signed by an HR representative as well as the employee.
  • Never provide copies of the contents of the file to the employee without checking with state laws; if in doubt, seek legal guidance.
  • A simple request for a copy of a form that they have already received a copy of, like a benefits application form, is allowed.

Maximum Security

Personnel files should be kept in a locked cabinet and office, preferably in an HR office, and access to personnel files should be limited only to those who have a job-related “need to know.” An HR representative should be the “gate keeper” to all file documents and only provide the information that is relevant to the request, not the entire file. All access should be under their supervision.

Retention and Purging

A legally safe practice is to keep personnel files no less than three years from the date of departure. Maintain the most current ones (one year or less) secured in the office and the older ones (more than one year old) in on- or off-site storage. Keep a log to sign and date the personnel files that are purged. Always make sure they are shredded for security.

A Good Example You Can Implement Now


General Employment
Employee Benefits / Medical Info
  • Application
  • Resume
  • References
  • Offer/Confirmation Letter
  • Background Check Report(s)
  • Orientation Checklist
  • Tax Withholding Forms
  • Direct Deposit Forms
  • New Hire Reporting
  • Garnishment Notices
  • Jury Duty Notices
  • Authorizations for Deductions
  • Payroll Status Changes
  • Policy Acknowledgements
  • Personal Data Changes
  • Resignation/ Termination
  • Copies of Unemployment-related Reports
  • Position Description
  • Performance Reviews
  • Goal Setting Documents
  • Self-Appraisal
  • Commendations
  • Disciplinary Documentation
  • Promotion or Job Change Training or Education
  • Certificates
  • Signed Salary Increases
  • Bonus Documents
  • Leave Requests 
  • Benefit Enrollment Form
  • Benefit Change Forms
  • Medical
  • Correspondence
  • Medical Leave
  • Documents
  • Cobra Forms
  • Copy of Beneficiary Designations
  • Doctor Notes
  • Disability Claims
  • Accident Reports
  • Worker’s Comp Forms and Correspondence


Final Word – No Shadow Personnel Files

While it is tempting for HR and/or managers to keep files at their desks as a convenient way to keep private notes, don’t do or encourage it. Private employee information is hard enough to keep locked up and all employee documentation/files can be subpoenaed in a legal dispute.




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