Personnel File: Employee Documents to Include (+ Free Checklists)
This article is part of a larger series on How to Do Payroll.
A personnel file is a paper or electronic folder that contains HR and payroll documents related to new, existing, or past employees. The documents within an employee personnel file should cover the entire employment lifecycle, from offer letters and W-4 forms to performance reviews and termination paperwork. It should also include basic employee documents and compensation information in compliance with federal and state labor laws.
Download our free checklists to help you keep track of what employee personnel file records to store; they can be edited to add documents specific to your company. Then, continue reading for more specific information on what to include and not include in a secure personnel file.
For help setting up a hiring process, follow our guide to hiring new employees.
What to Keep in a Personnel File
An employee personnel file includes legal documents, company documents, and employee documents. These should all be kept in an individual employee file in a secure location.
There are several employee-related HR and payroll documents that every personnel file must contain. These include legal employment records—such as payroll tax forms and employee-employer agreements.
The legal documents that every employee personnel file must have are:
- IRS tax withholding forms: W-4s and/or W-9s
- Payroll and compensation information: Any paycheck or pay card data
- Contracts or agreements: Non-compete agreement, an employment contract, or an agreement relating to a company-provided car or business credit card
- Employee benefits forms: Medical enrollment forms and beneficiary agreements, retirement forms (401(k)), FSA agreements, HSA agreements, etc.
- Child support documents: Any legal or litigation documents
- Workers’ compensation: Documentation of claims filed
- Termination documents: Documented reasons why the worker was terminated, unemployment documents, insurance continuation forms (COBRA), etc.
For a full list of payroll forms you may need or if you have more general questions about payroll, take a look at our guide on employer payroll forms or our how to do payroll article.
Company and policy documents should be included in an employee’s personnel file so they can be easily accessed by the employee’s manager, payroll team, or employee, if needed. While not required, these company documents (such as signed policies) are good to keep on file.
These should show when the employee acknowledged or signed certain policy documents in case of legal issues:
- Offer letter or employment agreement
- Signed Employee handbook
- Job description for the position
- Signed PTO policy, plus leave of absence, sick time*, and vacation time records
- Signed Non-disclosure agreement (NDA)
- Signed Sexual harassment policy
*In some states, employers are required to maintain sick time off records. If they’re not stored electronically within your payroll system, it’s a good idea to keep them in the employee’s personnel folder.
While you don’t have to keep every document in an employee personnel file, it is a good practice to keep documents that are collected upon hiring, such as a resume or job application. Additionally, any written performance documents (such as goal-setting records or disciplinary actions) can be kept in a personnel file.
- Basic employee information form: Name, address, phone number, and emergency contact details
- Job application, if applicable
- Performance evaluations, including awards or citations for excellent performance
- Warnings and other disciplinary actions, including summaries of customer or employee feedback and notes on attendance
- Educational transcripts: For example, if you use a learning management system (LMS) or online training portal, your employees’ training and certifications will likely be stored electronically.
- Goal-setting records: If you use performance management software, your employee goal-setting documents will likely be stored electronically.
NOTE: Items such as background checks and drug test results are confidential documents and should be kept in a separate file from all employee personnel documents.
To safeguard personnel files and other employee documents, companies can use an employee management platform like Rippling. With it, all people operations are done in one place—from onboarding to offboarding, including document management. You can manage and automate employee data and operations easily to ensure compliance.
What Not to Keep in Personnel Files
There are also documents that you should not include in the employee’s personnel folder, primarily because of confidentiality. These include the following:
- Pre-employment records, except for the application
- Monthly attendance records
- Anything related to worker eligibility, such as I-9 forms, copies of driver’s licenses, and social security cards. Consider putting these forms and related documents that verify an employee’s right to work in the US into a separate folder.
- Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) records. We suggest that you keep this documentation separate from the employee’s personnel folder; managers should not have access to view this data for the risk of discriminating against an employee in a protected class.
- Private documents protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), also referred to as health information privacy.
- Any other medical information; if you have staff who have given you doctor’s notes or other documentation such as for medical leave, for example, keep these documents separate.
- Private employee data—such as bank account details, Social Security numbers, or immigration documents—are best stored separately from the personnel folder.
How to Set Up Employee Personnel Files
Business owners don’t always realize the importance of setting up personnel files until they’re audited or served with a lawsuit. If you are operating in hindsight and nervous about getting everything set up for employees that already exist, don’t stress. Use the two checklists we’ve provided above, along with the steps for you to get your employee file folders set up and in order.
You should complete the following for organizing and storing personnel records to ensure compliance and security:
First, you need to take an inventory of what you already have for each employee. Be sure to take into account the documents that you already have and what you need from each employee. Use an employee personnel file checklist to make sure everything is in order. Each person might require their own list.
It would also be best if you audit files periodically to make sure every piece of information is up-to-date and accurate. Use a personnel file audit checklist to help keep track of what you’ve received. Ideally, you should create a personnel file for each employee on the date of hire. However, if you forget to do so, you can find documents—like employee resumes, performance reviews, and tax forms—in your email or online storage. Make sure you also have I-9s for each employee as well, but they should be kept in a separate file.
If there are documents on your list that you cannot find in your files, you can request these documents from your employees. Give each employee their individual checklist to show what they need to submit to update their personnel file. Set a due date for all employee documents to be in and complete. Be sure to review each employee’s list with them present so that if anything was not submitted, you can address it right away.
Follow up with each employee you requested additional documents from before the deadline so that everyone has time to submit the missing documents. Then, store your documents online, on your computer network, or in a locked file cabinet.
You will want to store your personnel documents in a file folder marked specifically for each employee by name. We recommend that you keep employee personnel files in a locked cabinet to safeguard confidential employee information from unauthorized personnel. Access to employee files should be limited to an authorized individual or department whose permission is needed to view the files, such as HR.
Documents can also be stored online with an encrypted service. Rippling provides secure online document storage, including copies of employee contracts, policies, and a copy of your employee handbook.
Schedule a periodic review of each employee’s personnel file. This can be done when you conduct their annual evaluation. Ensure that the files are accurate, up-to-date, and complete. If not, you can ask the employee to provide you with the updated files or information. Your business should verify that files are in order prior to any audits, such as payroll or labor.
Please note, personnel files can be viewed during a government audit or subpoenaed in the event of a wrongful termination lawsuit. Maintaining accurate, up-to-date files will help you avoid liability.
Follow our onboarding guide to learn how some of the personnel file documents will be used upon hire.
Federal & State Laws About Personnel Files
Being compliant with federal and state law is an important aspect of being an employer because you’re required to maintain employee data and personnel files. Here are the best practices, as well as what is required, at the federal and state levels.
Federal labor laws apply to all employers covered by federal anti-discrimination laws, which is typically any employer with 15 or more full-time employees. However, the following laws apply to all businesses, and each agency has its own document retention requirements and guidelines.
- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires that employers keep all personnel or employment records for one year. If an employee is fired, their personnel records must be retained for one year from the date of termination.
- Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), employers must keep payroll records for three years. Additionally, employers must keep on file any employee benefit plan (such as pension and insurance plans) and any written seniority or merit system for the full period the plan or system is in effect and for at least one year after its termination.
- Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers must keep payroll records for at least three years. Also, employers must keep for at least two years all records that explain the basis for paying different wages to employees of all genders in the same establishment (including pay rates, performance reviews, seniority and merit systems, and collective bargaining agreements).
You can find more on the required documentation by reading our article on payroll compliance.
State laws on personnel files revolve around whether or not an employee has a right to look at their personnel file. Many states have a provision that allows employees to request copies of documents in their files. In other states, employees may have to file a lawsuit to see their personnel file.
Right to View States
The following states allow employees to see some or all of the documents in their personnel folder; many states are quite specific about what exactly employees are allowed to view. Others allow the employer to charge reasonable fees for document copies. For example, in Arizona, payroll records can only be viewed.
Please see your state’s Department of Labor (DOL) website for more specific details.
Current “right to view personnel file” states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Personnel File Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
In states that require an employer to let their employees view their files, some may just want to see what is in them—what personal information the company has on file and/or any disciplinary action notices. Former employees may also request their personnel files to see what information may be passed to their new employers, or if they intend to bring a lawsuit against their former employer.
If you no longer want to have a filing cabinet full of papers, you can easily convert your employee personnel files to electronic storage, such as through Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. Or, you can use a free HR software solution where you can create custom fields for employee profiles and store employee records.
Maintaining personnel files is an important part of being an employer and protecting yourself from liability. It’s a great way to organize employee data and provides support for human resource decisions. You can choose to manage the employee personnel files electronically or use a paper-based system; either way, it’s important to include basic employee reports and adhere to the appropriate federal and state laws.