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Let’s Get Rid of the Paper, (HR) People!

“In God we trust; all others must document” might be the unofficial slogan of HR. We love documenting everything, in triplicate, and often on paper. And there’s good reason for that — HR is responsible for managing a company’s most sensitive and important information. From salaries to disciplinary actions, it’s HR’s job to know the what, when, where, why, and how.

But that doesn’t mean you need to keep every single document ever created or signed. If you’re still using a paper process, you may be the department responsible for most of the company’s paper consumption. The Environmental Protection Agency says the U.S. uses about 69 million tons of paper and paperboard each year, and this level of paper use costs the country 68 million trees each year. I’m putting out a call for every single HR leader to rethink the way you use paper (and perhaps plant a tree outside your office window).

Not convinced? Here’s why the paper chase is hurting you in the long run.

Paper Consumes Trees — and Time

Aside from the environmental effects of using paper, there are other disadvantages. For example, employees spend a considerable amount of time searching for documents stored in file cabinets and offsite storage. That’s not a good use of anyone’s time. And, if a document is misfiled (which they often are), it may never be found.

Digital documents provide a searchable, efficient, and cost-effective way to manage an organization’s most important information. A digital process can also help with recruiting, onboarding and other critical yet time-consuming functions. For example, you can easily generate a digital report to find out which employees have not e-signed requested documents, and send them an automated reminder.

Paper Poses a Security Risk

Paper storage also presents an unnecessary security risk. Any Tom, Dick or Harry — or Sally or Susan — can physically break into a file cabinet given the time and opportunity. Offsite storage presents another challenge, since you have no way of knowing what’s happening in a remote environment, and likely may not know if the records have been compromised.

When you’re working with digital records, you don’t have worry about leaving a file with sensitive information on a desk, forgetting to lock a file cabinet or leaving a document on the copier. Granted, cybercrime is a real danger with digital files, but permissions and encryption standards allow you to control exactly who sees each item. Not everyone needs access to every file or document, and you can choose which individuals need what data, and stop them from viewing information that isn’t relevant to their job. Plus, you’ll have an auditable timestamp that defines who accessed which records, including the date and time.

Paper Creates a Compliance Nightmare

Just based on the sheer number of documents that must be maintained by HR, and the length of time that some of them must be kept, paper records are impractical and could increase the risk of legal consequences.

We’re all required to keep a lot of employee information on file:

  • The Fair Labor Standards Act requires companies to keep basic employment and earnings records and wage rate tables for two years. Payroll records must be maintained for three years.
  • OSHA requires employers to keep injury and illness records for a minimum of five years — and they must be maintained onsite.
  • If an EEOC complaint is lodged against a company, personnel records pertinent to the investigation must be kept until the matter is resolved.

And if an organization doesn’t maintain the proper records, they can face stiff penalties,including paying the plaintiff’s attorney fees, and even being sanctioned for destroying evidence.

Do you really want your organization’s legal status to hinge on a piece of paper that might have been innocently misplaced or thrown away? Good luck explaining how a critical document somehow disappeared at the most inopportune time.

When a company’s hires, promotions, demotions, firings and other actions are called into question, you need documentation to prove that these dealings were handled fairly. For records to be safe and readily accessible, paper isn’t the best answer. Instead, digital records can be retrieved anytime and anywhere.

How to Go Paperless

So how do you make the transition to being a paperless HR organization? First you need to decide which records should be digitized and which can be destroyed. (That’s another benefit of being digital: When you no longer need a document, you simply press the delete key — no shredding necessary.)

The next step is to establish a policy and process to ensure everyone knows you will no longer accept paper documents. If there are employees in your company without access to a computer, don’t forget to consider them in your roll-out schedule. Although we often believe that smartphones have solved all digital woes, remember that not every employee is standing in line at the Apple store for the latest and greatest device.

Moving employee records from paper to digital storage will free you and your team from cumbersome, time-consuming tasks and allow you to focus on what’s really important: your people.

Oh…and the trees. Those are important too.

Let’s get rid of the paper, people.

With over 25 years of experience, Mark Stelzner has worked for organizations of every size and vertical. He has spent his career fostering relationships through attention to detail, natural curiosity, and a self-deprecating sense of humor.

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