How Long Should You Keep Human Resource Records?

Human resource professionals manage a variety of tasks associated with human capital management, starting with the first interaction of the application process, all the way through separation. Add to that all of the emails, forms, and phone calls each day, and it’s no wonder you get wrapped up with manual processes that can take up much of your work day.

As a document storage and document shredding provider, we’re often asked how long an employer is required to retain human resource records before they can be destroyed. In the US, federal and state laws require employers to keep a variety of HR documents for different periods of time – making it difficult to implement a one-size-fits-all document retention schedule.

Your job as an HR Manager begins with the pre-employment process and can last several months or years after termination. Throughout the employment lifecycle, there are documents related to each stage in the employer/employee relationship that contain confidential information. From pre-employment resumes, applications, and background checks, to health benefits, payroll/tax information, termination letters, and more.

How should you store HR documents?

While many HR departments are migrating to electronic HR management software platforms, the typical department most likely still maintains a variety of hard-copy employee records. In a paper-based HR document management system, each type of record should be stored separately within a file — i.e. one section for I-9 records, one for personnel, one for payroll/tax, and one for medical information (FMLA, ADA).

The contents of a personnel file provide an overview of important data from an employee’s time with the company and act as a reference for decisions made about an employee during their time with the company. The EEOC dictates certain storage requirements for records dealing with hiring, promotions, lay-off, and terminations.

While there are basic record retention guidelines for Human Resource documents, Record Storage Systems advises always consulting with your attorney, as well as state and federal guidelines before destroying HR documents.

HR document storage tips:

  • If possible, store all inactive HR files with a secure offsite storage provider that offers document destruction when the records have reached their expiration dates
  • If stored onsite, ensure records are stored in a locked, secure cabinet with limited authorized access only
  • Create a record retention schedule for types of HR files, including personnel files, medical files, I-9 forms, and EEO data records

Types of HR records and suggested HR record retention periods:

  • Recruiting/hiring records: 1 year
  • W-4 forms: 4 years
  • Health & benefits beneficiary forms: Termination + 3 years
  • COBRA records: 6 years
  • Job-related illness or injuries: Termination + 5 years
  • FMLA leave reports: Termination + 3 years
  • Form I-9: Termination +3 years
  • Unemployment claim records: Termination +4 years

For a complete list of record retention guidelines for HR records, check out this record-keeping policy on the SHRM website.

Creating an HR record retention schedule ensures you’re not holding onto documents past their usefulness – which can leave you susceptible to information security breaches, take up too much office space, and waste money trying to store and organize everything. Use your record retention schedule as a guide to keep paperwork manageable.

HR document retention tips:

  • Don’t be a “just in case” record hoarder. HR records should only be stored past their record retention period for legal or operational reasons.

  • Update your HR record retention plan annually. If you are or have recently migrated to an HR automation software, it’s important to incorporate electronic retention guidelines as well.

  • Don’t store temporary or unplanned information such as drafts, reminders, or extra copies that could potentially be seen by an unauthorized individual.

  • Consult with a CPA or attorney when creating your record retention policy. Make sure to consider state and federal law – especially dealing with unemployment and workers’ compensation records.
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