How long do you keep payroll records for a global business?

May 23, 2022

Keeping payroll records is both required (for a certain period) and smart.  

Deciding what to keep—and for how long—is where things get debatable.  

The idea that you should purge payroll records after a certain number of years is based on the time and space needed for retaining paper records. But the digital age has opened up new opportunities, including permanent record storage and on-demand retrieval.  

But for global employers who are still in transition and dealing with time and space constraints, here are a few guidelines for how long to keep your payroll records. 

Types of payroll records 

The term ‘payroll records’ refers to any form or documentation collected or produced for the purpose of processing payroll. These records include things like:  

  • Collective bargaining agreements 
  • Wage rate increase forms 
  • Timekeeping logs and timecards 
  • Tax withholding forms 
  • Etc. 

Each document serves a different purpose, and the minimum length of time to store these documents depends on their purpose.  

For example, tax documents can vary by the taxing authority, often somewhere between three and eight years. In this case–always err on the side of caution and go with the longest enforceable duration. 

Who determines how long you keep payroll records? 

Most businesses retain payroll records to document compliance. Any governing body that applies enforceable regulations on your business has a say in how long you keep your payroll records.  

For example, if you employ workers in the European Union, the European Commission requires that you are able to produce documentation proving compliance with directives such as providing your employees with a minimum of 11 hours of rest every 24-hour period. Detailed timekeeping logs with at least two years of historical data are the best way to comply with this requirement. 

Newer legislation under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires that employers maintain personnel records for at least six years.  

And this is just for payroll records in the EU.  

The best approach for an effective global payroll strategy is to efficiently maintain complete historical payroll data with records that are never purged. It will save you from a sizable headache when an old complaint resurfaces in the form of a federal investigation.  

If keeping your payroll records indefinitely is not an option, consider these recordkeeping requirements as you build your policies. 

Short-term payroll records (two-year minimum) 

Generally speaking, documentation that supports short-term arrangements should be maintained for at least two years from the expiration date on the document. This may include documents like a collective bargaining agreement with an expiration date or wage and benefits explanations for equal opportunity legislation. 

2 Years: Wage and Rate Information 

Type of Documentation 

Description 

Employee Schedules 

Documentation of when and how often individual employees are expected to work 

Timecards 

Documentation of when and how often individual employees performed work 

Wage and Rate Scales 

Documentation of how wages are determined 

 

Personnel records (three to six years minimum) 

Personally, we don’t see any reason to purge personnel records. These documents include personal information like the full name, social security number, address and personal wage history for every employee on your payroll.  

  • In the US, the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to maintain personnel records for a minimum of three years
  • In the EU, the General Data Protection Regulation requires employers to maintain personnel records for a minimum of six years
  • In Brazil, the statute of limitations on labor-related complaints is five years

3-6 Years: Personnel Records 

Type of Documentation 

Description 

Personal Identifiers 

Name, address, social security number, date of birth, gender, etc. 

Employment Identifiers 

Job title and description 

Workweek & Payroll Scheduling 

Time and day workweek begins, and the average hours worked per day/week, along with all regular and off-cycle payroll dates 

Employee Wages  

Hours worked, base wage rates and earnings, overtime earnings, additions and deductions, as well as data on total wages paid 

 

Payroll tax records (four-year minimum) 

If you’ve never been audited, count yourself as lucky!  

Once you’ve filed your taxes and paid what you owe, the taxing authority has a set amount of time (usually a number of years) to review your self-reported taxes for accuracy. If they don’t agree with your math, you may have to pull out your records and revisit them. 

In the US, the Internal Revenue Service dictates that employers maintain payroll tax records like employee rosters, wage payments, tax withholdings, deposit records, and copies of tax returns for at least four years—and the longer, the better.  

4+ Years: Payroll Tax Records 

Type of Documentation 

Description 

Employment Eligibility Forms 

Forms that provide proof to work in a specific country or region 

Identification Numbers 

Employer and employee ID numbers for tax purposes 

Dates and Amounts of Earnings, Withholdings, and Payments 

The ‘who’, ‘what’, and ‘when’ of your payroll taxes 

Personal Identifiers 

Names, addresses, and tax ID numbers for payroll employees and dates of employment 

Tax Reporting Documents 

Required notices sent to employees regarding tax payments 

Tax Returns 

Copies of your tax return forms for quarterly estimates and annual reconciliations 

Tips and Fringe Benefits 

Records of allocated tips and additional, taxable fringe benefits as appropriate 

 

How to maintain complete payroll records 

So, how long do you keep payroll records? The answer is that it depends. 

Global employers hold onto payroll records for many different reasons—compliance, financial management, and workforce planning, to name a few. Ideally, you’d want to keep your important payroll documents indefinitely.  

The problem is that paper records consume a lot of resources, and digital storage is still evolving. This leaves many companies to make hard choices around what to keep and when to discard. 

But there is a way to efficiently maintain complete digital payroll records for your employees around the globe

Working with a global managed payroll provider, you can have access to streamlined, efficient digital recordkeeping for your entire payroll process. That’s organization-wide transparency for better compliance, stronger financial decisions, and more strategic workforce planning. 

Learn more about how you can keep your payroll records as long as you’d like with global managed payroll services.  

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