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Personnel Files: Overview and Definition



A personnel file is an employers’ saved documentation of the history and status of the entire employment relationship with an individual employee. The employer maintains this employment documentation in a personnel file for three reasons.

  • The employer wants to have accurate information handy and organized when you need access to the information for any reason. Changes in emergency contacts, employee addresses, keeping track of performance evaluations, disciplinary letters, employee recognition, and employment application materials are examples of the kinds of information that the employer will want to be able to quickly access.

  • The employer needs to retain documentation about personnel issues such as employee selection, performance, work history, compensation rationale, and internal promotion applications, to name just a few. An EEOC claim, a lawsuit, or even the need to justify the lack of a raise or promotion to an employee require that the employer has collected and retained this type of employee documentation.

  • Some employee records are required by federal or state governments for employers to keep. Organizing the employee information in a personnel file makes sense for access and legal compliance and readiness.

Types of Personnel Files

An employer generally maintains several types of personnel files, for business use, for employee confidentiality, for medical privacy, and for legal compliance. I am unaware of any law that says how many files an employer is required to keep.

However, there are many laws, and there are personnel best practices for employee confidentiality, that govern content of personnel files and who has access to that information. These are the personnel files that most employers in the US maintain. (Worldwide laws and practices may differ.)

  • Personnel File: This is the main employee file that contains the history of the employment relationship.

  • Payroll File: You want to maintain a separate file for all payroll issues regarding salary and benefits.

  • Employee Medical File: The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) requires employers to protect employee medical records as confidential.

  • I-9 Employee Forms: You need to maintain a separate file for all employee (not per employee) I-9 forms since you don't want government employees, who are authorized to check these forms under a variety of circumstances, looking through your main, confidential employee personnel files.

Employee Access to Personnel Files

Employees are allowed access to their employee personnel files under the guidance and supervision of Human Resources staff. Employee personnel files are considered to be the property of the employer who has the responsibility to maintain and safeguard them.

Additional documents related to personnel files are available.

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Disclaimer – Please Note:

Susan Heathfield makes every effort to offer accurate, common-sense, ethical Human Resources management, employer, and workplace advice both on this website, and linked to from this website, but she is not an attorney, and the content on the site, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality, and is not to be construed as legal advice.

The site has a world-wide audience and employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country, so the site cannot be definitive on all of them for your workplace. When in doubt, always seek legal counsel or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct. The information on this site is for guidance, ideas, and assistance only.

Also Known As: employee files, employee records, human resources files, documentation
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