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5/23/2004

Handle files with care

By Bob Bowman
Special to the Times-Call

Employee files and records, unlike many files maintained by businesses of all sizes, require special attention and established guidelines. Simply placing employee records in a manila file folder and tucking them away in a desk drawer doesnít cut it. Employers of every sized company need to understand a few key elements related to employee files and paperwork.

There is no federal or state requirement that employers maintain personnel files on their employees as such. However, various federal and state laws mandate that certain records must be kept and the manner in which they must be filed. So if you have to consistently keep some employment related paperwork, you might as well maintain a systematic approach that wonít get you in trouble. Hefty fines for paperwork violations donít help achieve bottom-line profits.

Personnel files should include records related to employment such as employment applications and resume, college transcripts, position or job descriptions, compensation and training records, disciplinary and recognition notices, performance evaluations, exit interviews and termination records.

Whatís an exit interview? If you have to ask, you need to know just how important and helpful they are. More on that another time.

Several items must by law be maintained separately, apart from employee files. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to keep all medical records separate. To minimize claims of discrimination, it is important to keep source documents that verify an individualís race and sex in separate files. Immigration (I-9) forms, Invitation to Self-identify Disability or Veteran Status forms and Occupational Safety training records must all be maintained separate from personnel files.

Where should you keep these files now that you will be moving them from the bottom drawer of your desk? I suggest you keep them in a fireproof file cabinet that can be locked and keep this dedicated file cabinet in a room or office that can be locked (behind two locks is a requirement) and is accessible only to the person responsible for file maintenance and integrity.

It is important to identify a specific few trusted persons within the company or organization to maintain and have access to employee files. Likewise, it is suggested that companies develop and utilize written policies or guidelines for employee file accessibility. Such policies related to employee files will allow supervisors and human resource staff to maintain consistency with replies to employees requesting access to their files.

Consider including the following items in the policy: the definition of a personnel file, and a statement of where, when and how often and under what circumstances workers can review or copy their files.

To maintain the integrity of the records, access should be permitted under some type of direct supervision, preferably by the HR professional or the official responsible for record management. Employees should have a process to rebut or challenge the information in their file, but remember: The fileís content is the property of the employer.

Not everyone should have access to employee files. In fact, the only information that should be accessible to those outside of the human resources department are applications, resumes, education records, training and disciplinary records.

File retention is also dictated by employment laws, so my advice is to keep all records of those employees leaving the company for no less than 10 years. This may be overkill, but it has saved more than one employer during an employment audit.

And you thought that employee files were as simple as alphabetization? Think again!

Bob Bowman is the owner and principle consultant with HRMC, Inc. a national HR consulting and search firm headquartered in Longmont. Contact HRMC at www.hrmc.net.