HR Documentation: A Complete Guide (With Best Practices)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated November 3, 2022

Published April 19, 2019

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

It's vital for human resources (HR) professionals to maintain organized, accurate and consistent documentation of workplace events. Making documentation a priority can help mitigate disputes, clarify policies and answer important questions about the company. Understanding HR documentation and how you can improve your documentation efforts could help you protect the organization and simplify your internal processes.

In this article, we define HR documentation, share why it's important, review the difference between formal and informal documentation, list some important documents HR departments use and share best practices for documentation.

A person in glasses holds a piece of paper while sitting in front of an open laptop computer

What is HR documentation?

HR documentation refers to a set of records that businesses maintain to provide evidence, track changes and report information that may inform decisions. This documentation typically includes records of employment, information about company actions and incident reports. Federal and local law may dictate some records businesses keep, while others are subject to the company's internal policies.

The best HR practices involve maintaining both formal and informal records of all employment events. This can include items such as:

  • Actions

  • Contributions

  • Disciplinary actions

  • Disputes

  • Investigations

  • Performance evaluations

  • Policy violations

Maintaining extensive records allows the HR department to keep a detailed history of important events in the workplace. Documentation can also guide managerial staff on employee promotions, disciplinary actions, pay raises and terminations. It's vital that HR documentation is factual, objective and free from bias.

Related: What Is Process Documentation? (With Free Templates)

Why is documentation important?

There are many reasons maintaining a consistent, organized system for documentation can benefit an organization, including:

Demonstrates professionalism

Documentation shows both employees and customers that a company is serious about safeguarding critical information and providing interested parties with detailed records of workplace happenings. The practice of maintaining accurate documentation provides an accessible, manageable framework for addressing issues. It may also enable you to execute other processes with professionalism. For example, if you carefully document employee performance improvements, you could refer to the data when offering raises at the end of the year.

Related: How To Write a Raise Letter (With Template and Example)

Facilitates performance management

Thorough documentation ensures consistency, efficiency and standardization when managing employee performances. Keeping records of job descriptions, feedback and results may help managers guide and coach employees. It might also inform decisions about promotions and personnel changes. It can also benefit employees who want to learn more about their performance, identify any opportunities for improvement and track their goals. This may lead to a more engaged, effective team.

Related: Using Performance Management in the Workplace

Helps businesses enforce policies

Most businesses have a set of internal policies that guide behavior from employees and leadership. HR documentation helps management understand if employees are following these policies and if they're benefiting the organization. For example, if the employee handbook mandates that employees arrive for work no later than 15 minutes after their start time, HR may want to know if employees are abiding by this rule. Noting repeated tardiness in formal documentation may help them better enforce this rule and meet organizational goals.

Related: 16 Examples of Important Workplace Policies

Encourages compliance

Proper documentation can help a business defend itself if legal issues arise. Legal guidelines may require companies to execute particular actions like accommodating disabilities and allowing reasonable medical leave. Keeping thorough, prompt records of all communications with employees can help prove that an organization complied with all federal and local laws. Comprehensive records can help businesses protect themselves from financial audits and safety hazards, too.

Read more: How To Develop a Compliance Strategy (Definition and Goals)

Formal vs. informal documentation

Formal documentation adheres to certain standards and conventions as determined by the company and official HR procedures. Formal documentation includes official forms and paperwork, and some may require signatures from relevant parties. While any written record of workplace happenings can be beneficial, it's vital to supplement any informal documentation with formal documentation, especially as required by law.

Contrastingly, it can be appropriate for some documentation to be informal. Informal documentation can comprise notes, letters, emails or chat messages. For example, a manager might keep a casual record of discussions they've had with employees throughout the year to address during performance reviews. If an employee gives a written suggestion to management, they can file it for future reference.

Related: 16 Essential Documents Human Resources Departments Need

People going over documents in an office

Types of HR documentation

There's a variety of documents that might be necessary or helpful for HR professionals to keep. The exact documents needed may vary between employees depending on their unique situation. Companies may keep different records depending on their internal policies, too. It might be helpful to research legal obligations in your area and consult with a professional to learn which files are crucial for compliance. Here are some items that are typically beneficial to have on file:

1. Onboarding paperwork

It's important to keep employees' original paperwork from the hiring and onboarding process, including:

  • Job applications

  • Resumes and cover letters

  • Verifications of employment and education history

  • Employment contracts

  • Personal identification documents

  • Contact information

  • Bank account information

  • Compensation structures

  • Signed employee handbook acknowledgment forms

  • Relocation agreements

Read more: 8 Types of New Hire Paperwork for the Onboarding Process

2. Performance documents

Having detailed records about employees' ongoing performance can be beneficial, so consider keeping records like:

  • Job descriptions

  • Training records

  • Disciplinary action reports

  • Attendance records

  • Performance improvement plans

  • Policy violations

  • Self-assessments

  • Recognition and awards

Related: How To Document Employee Performance Issues

3. Medical information

Local laws may dictate how you document relevant medical information, but some departments may keep documents like:

  • Disability accommodations

  • Records of medical leaves

  • Doctor's notes for absences

  • Emergency contact information

Remember to respect employees' privacy and abide by all applicable regulations when requesting medical information and documenting health-related absences.

4. Termination records

If an employee leaves the company voluntarily or involuntarily, it's vital to keep thorough records of their departure, including:

  • Resignation or termination letter

  • Exit interview records

  • Insurance information

  • Remaining paycheck information

  • Clearance form

Related: How To Terminate an Employee (And What Not To Do)

Best practices for HR documentation

Below are some best practices you might implement to ensure you keep proper records in the workplace:

  • Define expectations. It's important to have a written, accessible statement of the company's expectations for employees so they're aware of the rules, policies and goals.

  • Be specific. Always be thorough and specific when preparing documentation, including dates, times and evidence wherever possible.

  • Involve the employee. When documenting an incident, policy violation or conflict, it's crucial to include the employee's perspective to explain what happened and why they made the choices they did.

  • Request and save feedback. Including feedback from supervisors and peers can make an employee's file more comprehensive and provide better data for decision-making.

  • Remain objective. It's important that feedback and reports be objective and fact-based, so focus on an employee's actions and outcomes rather than their character traits or relationships with others.

This article is for information purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice; you should consult with an attorney for any legal issues you may be experiencing.


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