How long do I have to keep HR records? From the Archive

For the entirety of consulting I have gotten the question of how long records need to be kept. Since I got that question again last week I thought I would republish this post. 

Purging files should be done on a regular basis.
Purging files should be done on a regular basis.

In my work, I spend time looking at the personnel files for many companies. Some of these files take up large amounts of space and with many companies, there are file cabinets that hold years and years and years of files. I tell people they don’t need to keep personnel files forever. Naturally, that leads to the logical question of “how long do I have to keep HR records?”
It depends
Because there are many different requirements for retention, depending upon with which law you are complying, the answer to that question is “it depends.” For example under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) Fact Sheet #21 indicates some records must be kept either 2 or 3 years. It says:

Each employer shall preserve for at least three years payroll records, collective bargaining agreements, sales and purchase records. Records on which wage computations are based should be retained for two years, i.e., time cards and piece work tickets, wage rate tables, work and time schedules, and records of additions to or deductions from wages.

For I-9s the requirement for retention is three (3) years or one (1) year after the employee’s termination, whichever is greater.
For OSHA records the retention period may go from 5 years for the OSHA 300 log to 30 years for the records of exposure to cancer-causing agents.
So as you can see there is no one set time frame.
Purging Policy
The unfortunate result of there being no one certain answer is that HR departments have a tendency to keep everything forever. Often with the thought in mind “what if we need this in the future?” The approach also ends up covering everything else that gets stuck in the personnel file. Things like the doctor’s excuse from 15 years ago, the tardy slip from 10 years ago, the performance appraisal from 20 years ago, etc. It is unnecessary to keep this amount of paperwork for that time.
Files need to be purged. But you want to make sure you do it consistently and regularly. My suggestion is to have a six (6) year threshold. With the exceptions noted below go through your files once a year and toss everything that has been there for six years or longer. The first time you do this it will be a lot of work, but after that, you will have less work to do. Create a policy if you want that states that all files are purged of materials that are greater than six years in age and then stick to it. By the way, this works for electronic files as well.
As I mentioned above, there are some exceptions to this purging policy. These include:

  • I-9s. They must be kept 1 year beyond the employment of the employee if they have been employed longer than three years. So if the employee is a 10-year employee you will still have that record. Note, however, that as soon as you can purge this form from your files you need to do so. Old I-9s that are incorrect will still get you fined even if the employee is no longer around.
  • OSHA exposure records. The six-year timeframe will cover the 5 years that the OSHA 300 logs have to be kept, but it does not cover the 30 years that exposure records must be kept. If the company is going to go out of business before the 30 years the employee must be contacted 3 months prior to the closing and offered access to those records. If there is a successor business the records must be transferred to it.
  • Litigation. If the company is involved in litigation with any employee or set of employees the records of those employees must be preserved until AFTER the litigation has been settled. “Accidently” deleting or throwing away records may result in unfavorable findings by the judge or jury.

A final note
When you are purging your records remember not to just throw this stuff in the trash. There is too much protected and confidential information involved. You would think this would be commonsense yet every year there is a story of records being found in a dumpster. So make sure the person assigned this duty is aware of their responsibility.

2 thoughts on “How long do I have to keep HR records? From the Archive”

  1. Timely article!
    I’ve have been lamenting that I have files that I’m sure are over 50 years old. Yes, we have many, many file cabinets.
    As a government entity there are pension forms in most files that the original must be kept. Your article has prompted me to decide to follow your guidelines but keep files for 15 years and just pull the pension forms from every file and keep them in their own (huge) file. It’ll be a tremendous undertaking for my department of one (me) but once it’s done it’ll be a relief.

  2. Great information Mike!
    One of my first projects at the new company that I am working for, will be purging some personnel files as well as making sure that we are in compliance with the I-9s.
    How often do you recommend that we should be purging the I-9s from terminated employees? Based on the requirements for employers, I understand we would need to do it daily, since we may have employees terminated at different times of the year. If we do it once a year, we may end up having I-9s out of the 3 year / 1 year rule.

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