The Best Practices for Employee Personnel Files

Each Type of Personnel File Has Designated, Appropriate Content

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It's a good idea for an employer to maintain a personnel file for each employee. Documentation of employment history, records of contribution and achievement, disciplinary notices, promotions, performance development plans, and much more, belong in a personnel file. Responsible, careful employers keep more than one personnel file, too, as each type of file has content that is appropriate for their purpose.

The employer has good reasons to keep several personnel files—some legal and some for employment best practices purposes. Documentation is needed so the employer has an accurate view of an employee's employment history. Documentation supports the employer's decisions and may protect the employer in a lawsuit—preserved correctly.

The contents of the personnel file provide a historical overview of the important happenings during an employee's career. They support the decisions that are made about the employee and his or her career. They demonstrate the employer's rationale behind hiring, promotions, transfer, rewards and recognition, and firing decisions.

Different Guidelines Are Associated With Different Personnel File Types

Because several types of personnel files are recommended, different rules and guidelines are associated with each type of personnel file for where they are kept and who has access.

For example, most organizations do not allow the employee's manager to access the overall personnel file. They expect the managers to keep relevant documentation in their own management employee file which is not the official personnel file.

  • Each type of personnel file has a different reason for existing and different contents, based on that reason.
  • Each type of personnel file is stored differently.
  • Access to a personnel file is restricted to certain employees in most organizations. Many organizations restrict personnel file access to Human Resources staff only. Different personnel file types also have different access guidelines.
  • Employee access to his or her personnel file is allowed, but most employers set up guidelines for employee access with a personnel file access policy in the employee handbook. (Various states and jurisdictions have different rules, so stay up-to-date on the requirements for your location.)
  • The Human Resources department owns and is responsible for employee personnel files.

Recommended Personnel Files

Here are the types of personnel files recommended and what you need to know about working with them.

Employee Personnel File

This is the main personnel file an employer maintains for each employee. The personnel file stores the employment history of each employee. This is what you need to know about an employee personnel file.

Medical File

The employee medical file has serious legal restrictions that the employer must know and heed. Here is what you need to know about the confidentiality and contents of an employee medical file.

Payroll File

Employee access to the employee payroll file is less restrictive than access to either the medical or the personnel file. The payroll file holds information about salary, benefits selection, pay rate changes, garnishments, and other legal documentation that affects an employee’s paycheck. Various accounting and Human Resources staff access the information in the payroll file.

I-9 Forms File for Employees

Because of the access rights of various government agencies, you follow best practice by maintaining a separate file for all employee I-9 forms. You do not want government agencies poking around in your main employee personnel file. Find out more about storing I-9 forms.

Personnel File Access Policy for Employees

You want to enable each employee to know what is in his or her personnel file, but you need to control the integrity, completeness, and thoroughness of the file. Maintaining employee and employer confidentiality and limited access are ensured with a personnel file access policy.

What Not to Include in an Employee Personnel File

Looking for guidelines about content that should never be included in an employee personnel file? Here are my best recommendations about the content that you want to maintain either in a separate, informal location or not retain at all. Retention of unneeded and purely opinionated documentation can hurt you.


Do you know what documentation is? The word, documentation, crops up frequently in the world of employment and Human Resources. But, the meaning of documentation and why you might want to document particular employment events is thoroughly covered in this article, "The Importance of Documentation in Human Resources." Take a look because proper documentation is essential for accurate employment files.

Disclaimer: Please note that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a world-wide audience and ​employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance.