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The "Traffic Light" Employee Record Filing System

Sue Willman, an employment attorney with Spencer, Fane Britt & Browne LLP in Kansas City, Missouri, recommends taking your employee records filing system a step further. In an article published in the Society For Human Resource Management’s HR Magazine, Willman outlines a three-part filing system she calls the “Traffic Light” filing system to designate the level of access to specific employee records. In this system, documents are designated as green (unrestricted access), yellow (access restricted as needed) and red (most restricted access). Below are some examples of what might be included in each of these files.


The green file should be considered as the official “personnel file.” People who might be given access to this file include the employee’s manager or supervisor, HR staff and HR managers. Documents kept in this file might include:

  • Employment application/resume
  • Licenses and certifications
  • Equipment and property check-out forms
  • Training records
  • Performance reviews
  • Disciplinary records
  • Employee awards documentation


The yellow file should be considered the “confidential file.” Only HR staff should have access to this file. Documents kept in this file might include:

  • Background check/criminal history reports
  • Pre-employment screening results
  • I-9 forms
  • Benefits election forms and other related documents
  • Tax forms (W-2, etc.)
  • Supervisory notes and correspondence


The red file should be considered the “restricted file.” Only senior-level HR personnel (like the HR manager) should have access to this file. Documents kept in this file might include:

  • Medical histories/evaluations
  • Requests for FMLA leave
  • Requests for ADA accommodations
  • Records related to employee investigations (discrimination, harassment, etc.)
  • Medical files*

*There are separate regulations governing access to medical records. While Willman recommends keeping these in the red file, employers should make themselves aware of the specific rules regarding medical files.

No matter what filing system an employer uses, it needs to be secure. If an employer keeps hard-copy files, they should be kept in a locked cabinet or in a separate, locked room if possible. Electronic files should be treated with an equal level of care.

Employers who are concerned about whether their record-keeping policies meet federal and/or state requirements should consider conducting an audit of their policies regulating access, retention, storage and/or security of employee records.

How long should you keep employee records?

One aspect of employer record maintenance that seems to trip many organizations up is exactly how long they are required to keep certain types of records. Federal law requires that employers keep and maintain certain information pertaining to each of their employees for a certain length of time. But exactly how long an employer has to keep a particular employee record on file varies depending on the regulations established by the relevant legal authority that governs the information contained therein.

G&A Partners’ experienced HR advisors provide our clients with expert HR support and best practices with multiple aspects of human resources, including conducting assessments of human resources/employment practices.

Learn how G&A Partners can help you protect your business and employees through our labor law and HR compliance services.