What Should an Employee Personnel File Contain? (with Free Checklist)

Woman in a light brown suit looks at paper documents for an employee personnel file.
An employee personnel file contains certain job-related documents. Here's a list of what you should and should not put in an employee personnel file.

Key points about employee personnel files:

  • A personnel file is a record of an employee’s work life. It contains relevant HR and payroll documentation. But only certain documents belong in a personnel file.
  • Our free Employee Personnel File Checklist will help you keep accurate, compliant records.

It’s impossible to condense someone’s entire life into a single file. But an employee personnel file comes pretty close. 

An employee personnel file is a record of an employee’s history with their employer. It includes information from their initial application all the way to their eventual exit interview. 

You can’t put every piece of employee-related documentation in someone’s personnel file, though. So what exactly should be in this file? 

Here’s what you need to know to stay organized (and compliant!).

What is an employee personnel file folder?

An employee personnel file is an electronic or paper record of a past or current employee’s history with their employer. 

In general, a personnel file contains job-related documents associated with an employee’s performance, knowledge, skills, abilities, and behavior. 

Why are employee personnel files important?

It’s important to keep employee personnel files for compliance reasons. But they also serve as a record of an employee’s performance and attitude. As a result, they’re important resources to consult when making employment decisions (like promotions or layoffs).

They can also provide evidence that protects you and your company from legal issues. For instance, a former employee may file a lawsuit and claim that you terminated them unjustly. As long as you’ve kept an accurate, updated copy of their personnel file, you’ll have a record of any poor performance or problematic behavior that led to the employee’s termination. 

What should an employee personnel file contain?

A personnel file contains basic HR and payroll information that an employee is already familiar with, like job applications, employment contracts, and performance reviews. 

To stay organized, many employers sort the contents of personnel files into more specific categories:

Personal information 

An employee personnel file should contain basic personal information such as:

  • Names
  • Addresses
  • Phone numbers
  • Emergency contact information

Keep confidential employee information, like an employee’s Social Security Number, in a separate file. 

Pre-hire and hiring information

Employee files should also include documents related to recruiting and hiring, such as:

  • Job applications
  • Resumes and cover letters
  • Educational transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation and references
  • Job descriptions
  • Interview notes
  • Job offer letters and employment contracts

Employment history

Documents pertaining to someone’s employment history should also be kept in their employee file. This includes:

  • Records relating to promotion, demotion, internal job transfers, and layoffs
  • Pay and compensation information
  • Rejection letters
  • Other documents related to employment

Agreements and policy acknowledgments

Many organizations ask their employees to sign and acknowledge an employee handbook or company policy. In each employee’s personnel file, include signed copies of the following:

Performance records

Employers and managers often use the information stored in personnel files to make employment decisions. That’s because these files contain documents related to an employee’s performance, including:

  • Performance reviews and self-evaluations
  • Goals or records of goal-setting
  • Attendance and tardy records
  • Awards, certificates, and other recognitions 
  • Warnings and disciplinary notices
  • Employee development plans
  • Performance improvement plans
  • Counseling records
  • Training records
  • Competency assessments 
  • Formal employee feedback and your organization’s response
  • Formal complaints from customers or coworkers 

Termination records 

Whether an employee leaves voluntarily or involuntarily, you need to keep their personnel records for at least one year after their termination date. Their file should contain termination records such as:

  • Termination notices or employee resignation letters
  • Reason for termination
  • Exit interview notes
  • COBRA notifications
  • A final record of company property, final pay, and other employment matters

What should not be in an employee personnel file?

Certain information needs to be stored separately from an employee’s personnel file. As a result, most employers have at least two files for each employee: the main personnel file and a separate file with confidential information. Most employers create dedicated files for Form I-9 information, and some even separate employee benefits information. 

Different states and localities may have different requirements. In general, though, you should store the following information outside of the main personnel file:

Confidential information

Managers can usually access and review personnel files to make employment decisions. But they should not be able to access an employee’s confidential information. Because of this, you need to keep confidential data separate from personnel files. 

For each employee, create a separate file that contains confidential information such as:

  • Birthday
  • Marital status
  • Immigration status
  • Veteran status
  • Disability status
  • Dependent information 
  • Social Security Number
  • National origin
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation 
  • Garnishments
  • Litigation documents
  • Criminal history
  • Background check results
  • Drug test results
  • Credit information, credit reports, and personal or financial data

Medical information

One distinct type of confidential information is employee health and medical information. Under HIPAA, you need to keep this information separate from personnel files and other business records. This includes information such as:

  • Health insurance applications and forms
  • Life insurance applications and forms
  • Applications for any employee benefit that requires medical information 
  • Requests for paid or unpaid medical leaves of absence
  • Family Medical and Leave Act (FMLA) reports and related documentation
  • Medically-related leave documentation for employees who are ineligible for FMLA
  • Physician’s examinations, notes, correspondence, and recommendations
  • Medically-related excuses for absenteeism or tardiness from a physician
  • Medical job restrictions with documentation from a physician
  • Accident and injury reports, including OSHA-required documents
  • Workers’ compensation reports of injury or illness
  • ADA requests and related medical documentation
  • Any other form or document that contains private medical information about an employee

Records of complaints and investigations

Similarly, you should keep records of complaints and investigations separate from the employee’s personnel file. This includes:    

  • Internal workplace investigation records
  • Government agency claims
  • Documents related to lawsuits

Form I-9 and immigration information

Form I-9 verifies an employee’s identity and employment eligibility. Most experts recommend storing I-9 forms separately from personnel files. 

In the case of an audit, the inspector will need to examine your employees’ I-9 forms and related documentation (like copies of identification). Storing I-9 information separately from the main personnel file ensures that these auditors don’t have access to employment records and other information that they simply don’t need. 

Does this belong in a personnel file?

If you’re considering whether an item belongs in an employee’s personnel file, ask yourself:

  • Does this document justify employment decisions?
  • Would you need this document in a court of law?
  • Does the employee know this document will be stored in their personnel file?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, the document should (generally) be included in the employee’s file.

Remember: An employee’s personal file should not contain confidential information. It should not contain opinions or personal notes either. Don’t include any unfounded comments or criticisms you wouldn’t want the employee to see.

Can an employee request their personnel file?

Whether an employee can view their personnel file depends on state and local legislation.

In some states, employees can access their personnel files. Other states allow limited access—employees can only view certain records. Others don’t allow employees any access. 

If you have employees in multiple states, let them know that access to their files may depend on where they work. As always, check your local legislation to ensure you stay compliant.  

If your state doesn’t have a specific law, you can set some guidelines yourself. Consider:

  • Will current and former employees be able to access their personnel files?
  • Can employees copy information from their personnel files?
  • What happens if an employee believes that the information in their personnel file is incorrect?
  • Are there any restrictions on the information an employee can access?
  • Is there a limit to how frequently an employee can access their file?

Where should you store employee personnel files?

Physical or paper files

If you keep physical copies of employee personnel files, you should store them in a locked, fire-proof filing cabinet (or similar). Keep this storage container in a locked room that only authorized personnel can access. 

Electronic files

Most employers choose to store personnel files electronically. Digital files eliminate the need for costly physical storage space. They’re also easier to retrieve and maintain. 

If you store employee personnel files digitally, look for a cloud-based solution with reliable, secure services. Your provider should have robust security measures, including firewalls, encryption, and regular data backups.  

There are dedicated document storage solutions, but an HRIS is often the most efficient choice. Because you can securely store personnel files alongside your employees’ HR and payroll data, you don’t need to use multiple platforms. This reduces duplicate data entry and saves time and money in the process. 

Regardless of how you store employee personnel files, keep them in a secure location with restricted access. The more secure, the better!

How long should you keep employee personnel files?

The EEOC requires you to keep personnel and employment records for as long as an employee works for you. If an employee leaves or is terminated, you need to keep their personnel file for one year after their termination date. 

However, retention and record-keeping requirements vary widely based on the type of document and local laws. As such, it’s generally recommended to store records for longer than one year. 

Most employers maintain all personnel and employment records for seven years after an employee’s termination date. This covers most federal and state statutes of limitations and ensures you have the necessary records in case of a lawsuit. It also makes record-keeping easier. If you keep all of an employee’s records for the same amount of time, you don’t need to dispose of each individual document when its retention period has passed.

Federal document retention requirements

Most documents in personnel files have specific recordkeeping requirements depending on the information they contain. We’ve outlined the federal requirements below to help you stay compliant. 

Keep in mind that rules and regulations vary by state. Always check your local legislation to ensure you stay compliant.

How long to keep hiring records and pre-hire information

You need to retain hiring records for one year after the document was created, or for one year after you made an employment decision, whichever is later. 

You need to keep these records to show that your hiring decision complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other relevant laws.

Examples of hiring records include:

  • Job applications
  • Resumes
  • Job ads
  • Interview notes and other records related to job offer decisions

How long to keep employment records

Keep records related to employment history and performance for one year after the employee’s termination date. 

This includes:

  • Records relating to promotion, demotion, internal job transfers, and layoffs
  • Performance reviews 
  • Reasonable accommodations 
  • Training records 
  • Awards or merit systems
  • Other documents related to performance or employment

How long to keep employee payroll records

In general, you need to keep payroll records for three years. However, most experts recommend that you keep these records for at least five years after an employee’s termination date to cover any additional requirements.

This includes timesheets and time cards, plus records related to:

  • Wage rates
  • Payment dates and amounts
  • Total hours worked and wages paid each pay period
  • When an employee’s workweek begins and ends
  • Overtime
  • Annuity and pension payments
  • Fringe benefit payments
  • Other additions to and deductions from wages
  • Other payroll-related records 

How long to keep documents with confidential information

Requirements vary depending on the type of data in the document. For instance, you’re required to store background checks and drug test results for one year (though experts recommend keeping them for five years). 

Because there are so many different types of records, consult your legal advisor and local laws to stay compliant.

And remember: Records with confidential information should not be included in an employee personnel file.

How long to keep records of complaints and investigations

In general, you should keep claims and other documents related to lawsuits until the claim or litigation is resolved.

Don’t forget: These records should be stored separately from the employee’s personnel file.

How long to keep Form I-9

You need to keep an employee’s Form I-9 for as long as the employee works for you. Once the employee leaves, you need to keep their Form I-9 for three years after their hire date, or for one year after their termination date, whichever is later.

Remember: An employee’s Form I-9 should be stored separately from their personnel file.

How long to keep employee medical records

Different laws impact different types of medical records. To account for these differences, experts recommend keeping employee medical records for at least seven years. 

This includes things like:

  • Health insurance applications and forms
  • Requests for paid or unpaid medical leaves of absence
  • Family Medical and Leave Act (FMLA) reports and related documentation
  • Doctor’s notes, correspondence, and recommendations
  • Any other document that contains private medical information

Again, remember: An employee’s medical records should always be stored separately from their personnel file.

What if there isn’t a federal or state-mandated retention requirement?

In some instances, there is no federal or state-mandated retention period. If there is no law that specifies how long to keep a document, the Uniform Preservation of Private Business Records Act (UPPBRA) recommends keeping the document for three years. Not all states have adopted this standard, though, so consult your legal advisor to ensure you stay compliant.

How should you dispose of personnel files?

Once you’ve kept employee records for the required length of time, you can get rid of them. But you can’t just toss them in the trash.

Employee personnel files contain personal information. When you throw them away, you need to keep their data safe from theft and other threats. What’s more, if you don’t dispose of these files correctly, you may face liabilities and fines.

A file that has been properly discarded cannot be read or reconstructed. Make sure you: 

  • Erase and destroy digital files 
  • Shred, burn, or otherwise destroy paper files
  • Consider getting help from a trusted document destruction agency

Stay organized with our free Employee Personnel File Checklist

Between the various documents and storage requirements, it isn’t always easy to manage employee personnel files. Our free Employee Personnel File Checklist will help you maintain accurate, compliant employee personnel files.

Legal Disclaimer: The information contained in this guide is for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstance shall we have any liability to you for any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of the template or reliance on any information provided in this template. Your use of the template and your reliance on any information is solely at your own risk.


The Sentric Team

The Sentric Team

At Sentric, we help businesses make people management easier with industry-leading technology and standout support.

Sentric HR & Payroll Insights

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