The Employee Onboarding Documents You Must Have

The collection of employee records during the onboarding process is a must. This article explores best practices for gathering onboarding documents.


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If you run an organization that employs people, you should know that the hiring and onboarding processes come with a lot of paperwork. In fact, you may collect employee documents during onboarding and throughout the employment period.

As the employer, it is your responsibility to keep employee records safe. Improper storage or sharing of employee data will put you on the wrong side of the law, even if it’s accidental. Failing to keep complete records for the appropriate period of time is a problem as well. If you fail to comply with employee data regulations, you and your organization could be subject to fines, penalties, litigation, and more.

In this article, we are going to go over all of the onboarding documents that you need to collect from new employees, as well as best practices in data security to help keep you in compliance with the law.

What Is Employee Data?

Typically, the term “employee data” refers to any personal information you keep about your employees. This can include job applications and resumes, reference check notes, onboarding forms for new employees, employment verification letter requests, and offboarding tasks for employees leaving the organization.

If you have 15 or more employees, federal regulations dictate which documents you must keep and for how long.

Employee Onboarding Documents You Must Keep:

  • Form W-4 for federal income tax withholding. Use the most recent version of the form for new hires. You must also offer your existing employees the opportunity to update their W-4 using the latest version as often as they would like. Employees might want to change their withholdings for a number of reasons, such as an employee bonus, a change in family size, or a change in tax law. For example, the IRS withholding tables changed significantly after the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Employees might want to update their withholdings to avoid having too much or too little withheld from their paychecks. It is your responsibility to keep track of each employee’s most recent W-4 form, and to ensure that employee paychecks reflect their most recent choices for withholdings.*Keep a Form W-4 on file for each employee for at least four years after the date the employment tax is due or is paid, whichever is later.
  • Form I-9 to identify individuals authorized to work in the US. The employee must also provide you with proof of their identity and work eligibility. Acceptable forms of ID are listed on the form. Larger employers can sign up for the E-Verify system, which compares the information on Form I-9 with federal databases. (In some states, E-Verify is required for all employers, so check your state regulations.) *Employers must keep I-9 forms for three years after the date of hire, or one year after the date employment ends, whichever is later. The forms must be stored separately from other employee data.
  • Job application form. You must collect a job application form from each new employee, even if they have submitted a resume. Some states have specific requirements for statements that must be included in all employment applications. But generally, the purpose of the application is to uniformly collect the same data in the same order from every candidate. Usually, it includes work history, degrees earned, and personal data such as name and contact information. You should also collect an employee signature attesting to the accuracy of all information on the job application and consent to a background check. *Keep the job application form, plus any resumes or notes you collect during the hiring process, for one year after you make your hiring decision.
  • Register with state employment agencies.Each state has their own forms and requirements, but generally, you will need to collect and submit paperwork to your state’s new hire registration system. You will also need to register with your state’s taxing agency, labor agency (for unemployment taxes), and worker’s compensation agency. *Keep all records of employment taxes for at least four years after filing the 4th quarter for the year.
  • Drug testing records. If you require a pre-employment drug test, or drug-testing during employment for any reason, you must maintain records of the test results. *You must keep these records for one year. If you are subject to Department of Transportation regulations, then the minimum time frame for drug test records is five years.
  • Payroll records. You must keep all payroll records, including time cards for non-exempt employees. Be sure your records include the type of pay employees received, such as base-salary, overtime, bonuses, etc. *Maintain these records for a minimum of three years.
  • Employee handbook signature page. Every organization that employs people should have an employee handbook that outlines the employer’s policies and procedures. You should have every employee sign a page acknowledging that they have received the handbook. This will serve as your evidence that you provided notice of your policies and procedures. *Maintain these records for at least three years.
  • Health and pension benefits records. You must maintain records of all employee benefits, including information necessary for former employees to apply for COBRA. *Maintain these records for a minimum of six years.
  • FMLA records. When an employee requests leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, you need to keep a record of that, even if you deny the leave. Track when the leave began and how much time was used, including for intermittent leave. *Maintain these records for a minimum of three years.

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list. Your state may require additional documentation. Please check with your state’s tax and labor agencies to inquire about additional employment form requirements.


How to Keep Employee Data Safe

All employers have a responsibility to keep their employees’ personal data safe. This means that you must take care to store data in a way that keeps the wrong people from gaining access to it. Improper storage or sharing of employee data can put you at risk of being sued by employees or fined by federal and state agencies.

These are some best practices for safely storing your employee information during the onboarding process and beyond:

  • Be intentional in deciding where critical employee information is stored and who has access to it. This is a serious decision that requires careful thought and planning. At a minimum, physical data should be kept under lock and key, and electronic data should be password protected. Only grant access to these documents to people who need it, such as HR managers.
  • Create an acceptable use policy for all employees that states how employee data may be used. The policy should also explain the organization’s procedures when a violation occurs. It is also critical that you consistently enforce these policies and procedures.
  • Regularly review and revise your policies. If a violation occurs, ask yourself why it happened, and whether you need to change your policies to prevent a future breach.
  • Create an incident response plan to address employee data loss or access by unauthorized people.

The Case or Storing Employee Documents in the Cloud

Cloud document storage for HR and employee data has a lot of benefits. It makes saving, securing, and finding documents easier for everyone involved.

For one thing, cloud storage will help you to eliminate record silos. Whereas a traditional paper-filing system would have different documents stored in different physical locations, a cloud storage system has all records accessible from anywhere.

It is also much more secure than physical storage. You may have heard horror stories about computer hackers gaining access to a company’s employee data, but the truth is that cloud storage is safer than physical storage. It is easy for an unauthorized employee or visitor to break into a filing cabinet, for example. But an electronically protected cloud storage system is more than 99 percent effective in keeping unauthorized users out.

What’s more, a cloud document management system allows HR teams to run audit reports to keep track of missing, required, and renewable documents. Most cloud systems also let you instantly file forms with state and federal agencies, making the onboarding process a lot less cumbersome.

Employees come with a lot of paperwork, especially during the hiring and onboarding process. Failing to keep the appropriate documents or store them securely can put you at risk of a lawsuit or fines. Be sure that you are aware of all the documents that you need to collect from new employees, as well as best practices in data security to help keep you in compliance with the law.

This article is intended only for informational purposes. It is not a substitute for legal consultation. While we attempt to keep the information covered timely and accurate, laws and regulations are subject to change.


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