How to Declutter HR by Going Paperless

Google “Decluttering,” and you’ll get more than 7 million results. There are now professional declutterers, and a best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, proves getting rid of stuff isn’t just an American fad. In Human Resources most of the “stuff” that clutters our offices is paper. So how do we join in the decluttering movement and go paperless?

First let’s look at where all that paper comes from. Documents stored in HR offices typically fall into two categories, employee-specific and operations-specific. Employee-specific records are usually found in employees’ files. These include:

  • Application and resume
  • Emergency contact
  • Job status changes
  • Training records
  • Performance reviews
  • Job description
  • Compensation history
  • Termination documentation 

Employees may also have a second, separate file with medical information.

Records that are kept for operational reasons may include:

  • HR department procedures
  • Internal investigation notes (although the outcome of an investigation relating to an employee could be in his or her individual file)
  • Hiring documentation or paperwork, such as applications from applicants who have not been hired
  • Workers’ compensation records or other safety documentation
  • If applicable, Affirmative Action Plans and EEO-1
  • Benefits contracts and information

With all these different types of documents and information, is it really possible for HR to go completely paperless? Probably not, because certain documents must be retained in their original form. Those records include:

  • Agreements, contracts, notarized documents
  • Sealed court records, promissory notes, and settlement records
  • Any document with financial or legal significance that cannot be authenticated if it is digitized

Additionally, there are very specific considerations for the electronic retention of Form I-9.

When using an electronic I-9 system, the employer must ensure that the employee receives complete I-9 instructions and that the resulting I-9 form is legible. No change may be made to the name, content, or sequence of the data elements and instructions, and no additional data elements or language may be inserted. I-9s must also be retrievable for auditing purposes. Employers should avoid systems that are not designed specifically for I-9 compliance, such as multi-purpose HR programs. Employers that choose to store the I-9 electronically must comply with extensive electronic storage regulations published in the Federal Register. The requirements are summarized in pages 28-30 in the Handbook for Employers.

Once a decision is made to go paperless—at least as much as is practical—employers should consider what exactly “paperless” means. Does it mean paperless storage of records using a document-management system, or does it mean implementing a system(s) that allows HR to operate with very little paper?

The implementation of computer-based systems can be more efficient and better accommodate evolving compliance issues. Systems can be programmed to provide HR with alerts when a change in an employee’s hours could impact their status under the Affordable Care Act, for example. Some systems traditionally dependent on paper can be made more efficient electronically. These include recruiting and hiring, compensation and benefits administration, and performance management. By creating an improved workflow, information including HR metrics can be more readily available. The key to successful paper-free systems is engaging with IT to make sure electronic systems work together seamlessly and can be fully supported either with internal expertise or external relationships.  

Whether you’re going paperless to cut down on clutter or to ramp up efficiency, there are some important considerations:


  • Employers must do their due diligence to keep records safe from hacking, theft, and unplanned destruction (fires, floods, etc.).


  • Enforce the same expectations as with hard-copy originals: access is only available to those with a legitimate “need to know.”


  • Electronic documents must be completely reproducible in paper form, including ink color.

Retention and Destruction

  • Policies for record retention and confidential disposal of both paper and electronic records must be established.
  • Electronic files are “invisible” compared to boxed paper files, and may be retained too long!

State Laws

  • Verify with all states where you have employees what laws might affect access of employment records.


  • When legal actions take place, all relevant records must be produced upon request as directed by court orders.


  • ALL responsibility for the above considerations stays with the employers, NOT the vendor who provides the electronic storage service/technology/expertise.
  • Employers MUST do due diligence in vetting vendors/software/cloud products.

Deciding to go paperless and then choosing the appropriate tools to make the decision a reality may take time and energy, and as they say on the website, “The goal is to take your first step with excitement behind it. There is a beautiful world of freedom and fresh breath hiding behind that clutter (paper).”