GDPR employee data retention: what HR needs to know



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11 mins


For HR departments, the GDPR has ushered in a new era of responsibility and accountability when it comes to employee data. From establishing legal bases for data processing to implementing stringent data retention policies, HR professionals navigate a complex landscape to safeguard employee information. Here we’ll delve into the HR’s role in GDPR employee data retention, as well as explore the legal foundations for data processing, how to formulate robust data retention policies, employee rights within the GDPR framework, and how to implement essential data security measures.


Understanding GDPR in the context of employee data retention

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) serves as a comprehensive framework within the European Union (EU) to safeguard individual privacy rights. Enacted in May 2018, the GDPR is a response to the evolving challenges of data privacy in the digital age, aiming to grant individuals greater control over their personal information. It introduces stringent rules for how organisations collect, process, and retain sensitive data such as employee data. 

While the GDPR primarily applies to organisations within the EU, its territorial scope extends to impact entities outside the EU that handle the personal data of EU residents. The GDPR continues to play a pivotal role in shaping data protection standards in the UK, even after Brexit. All UK employers must maintain compliance with the GDPR’s standards.

HR’s crucial role in GDPR employee data retention compliance

With the GDPR placing heightened emphasis on the responsible handling of employee data, HR professionals are at the forefront of implementing robust data protection measures. Challenges include including navigating intricate compliance requirements, ensuring transparency in data processing activities, and establishing effective data retention policies.

HR software vendors are on hand to help. Purpose-built GDPR compliant HR software like Ciphr’s, for example, can automate data management processes, facilitate secure storage, and enable efficient tracking of employee data throughout its lifecycle. Working with a trusted vendor who is well-versed in the GDPR’s intricacies provides HR teams with valuable insights and guidance, helping them stay abreast of evolving regulatory landscapes and emerging best practices.

HR professionals must diligently collect only the necessary personal information, process it transparently, and establish clear policies for data retention. This includes defining specific periods for retaining employee records, while also ensuring that outdated or irrelevant data is promptly and securely disposed of in compliance with GDPR’s “data minimisation” principle. By embracing these responsibilities and utilising technology to their advantage, HR departments can not only meet GDPR compliance requirements but also contribute to fostering a culture of data privacy within the organisation.

The GDPR outlines several legal bases that organisations must adhere to when processing employee data to ensure transparency, fairness, and the protection of individual privacy. One primary legal basis is obtaining explicit consent from employees. This involves securing clear and informed agreement from individuals for specific purposes of data processing. Consent under the GDPR is a voluntary, revocable choice, emphasising the importance of individuals being fully aware of how their data will be used. Another legal ground is the necessity of processing for the performance of a contract. In the employment context, data processing is essential for fulfilling the terms of the employment agreement, such as payroll management, employee benefits, and HR-related functions.

Additionally, the GDPR recognises legitimate interests as a lawful basis for processing employee data. This allows organisations to process data for purposes that are necessary for their legitimate interests or those of a third party, provided these interests are not overridden by the rights and freedoms of the individuals. Striking a balance between organisational needs and individual privacy, HR professionals must carefully assess and apply the appropriate legal basis for each data processing activity, ensuring compliance with the GDPR’s rigorous standards. This conscientious approach not only safeguards organisations against legal repercussions but also builds trust by respecting employees’ rights in the handling of their personal data.

Crafting effective employee data retention policies under the GDPR

As the custodians of vast amounts of employee information, HR professionals must navigate the intricate terrain of GDPR compliance by defining and implementing policies that govern employee data retention. This imperative is underscored by the GDPR’s stringent requirement for organisations to not only collect and process data lawfully, but also to establish explicit retention periods and adhere to the principle of storage limitation.

The GDPR’s storage limitation principle mandates that personal data should be kept for no longer than is necessary for the purposes for which it is processed. In the HR context, this requires HR departments to meticulously define and document specific timeframes for retaining various categories of employee data. This includes data related to recruitment, employment contracts, performance reviews, and other HR processes. By doing so, organisations not only align with the GDPR’s emphasis on data minimisation but also ensure that employee information is not retained indefinitely, mitigating the risk of unauthorised access and potential misuse. HR’s commitment to transparent and responsible data management, as reflected in well-documented retention policies, not only fosters GDPR compliance but also builds a foundation of trust with employees who entrust their personal information to the organisation.

Employees’ rights under the GDPR

Within the framework of the GDPR, individuals, or data subjects, are endowed with a set of rights that empower them to exercise control over their personal information. These rights include, but are not limited to, the right to access, rectify, and delete their personal data. HR departments play a pivotal role in upholding these rights, necessitating a robust and transparent approach to HR data management.

The right to access grants employees the ability to request confirmation of whether their personal data is being processed and, if so, to obtain a copy of that data. You’ll need to establish clear procedures for handling access requests, ensure timely responses and provide information in a comprehensible format. Similarly, the right to rectify empowers individuals to correct inaccuracies in their personal data. Remember; HR has a responsibility to maintain accurate records and promptly address any discrepancies. You can streamline and simplify this process with self-service HR software, which enables you to delegate the responsibility for data access and rectification to employees themselves. This useful feature not only enhances transparency, but also promotes a collaborative approach, ensuring that individuals have more control over the accuracy and management of their own personal information within the system.

However, the right to be forgotten, or the right to erasure, presents a nuanced challenge. While HR must comply with requests to delete personal data under certain circumstances, there are situations where legal obligations or legitimate interests may override this right. Take care to strike the right balance.

Implementing GDPR-compliant security measures for employee data

Data security is paramount under the GDPR. It requires organisations to implement robust measures to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of personal data. HR departments, as the stewards of employee data, play a central role in upholding these standards. 

You’ll need to take a multifaceted approach to securing employee, including:

  • Encryption, which ensures that data remains unreadable to unauthorised individuals even if intercepted. Implement strong encryption protocols for both data in transit and data at rest to protect employee information
  • Access controls. You’ll need to define and regulate who within the organisation can access specific employee data. This ensures that sensitive information is only available to those with a legitimate need, minimising the risk of unauthorised access
  • Employee training is another crucial component of data security best practices. HR should foster a culture of awareness and responsibility by educating staff about the importance of data protection, the risks associated with mishandling personal information, and the specific protocols in place for safeguarding data. Human error is a common factor in data breaches, and an informed workforce serves as a robust defence against potential vulnerabilities.

In the event of a security incident that compromises the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of employee data, HR is obliged to promptly notify both the relevant supervisory authorities and the affected individuals.

When faced with a data breach, HR should follow a systematic and well-defined procedure to mitigate the impact and adhere to GDPR’s reporting requirements. Here’s an example:

  1. Undertake a swift and comprehensive assessment of the breach’s scope and severity, identifying the nature of the compromised data and potential risks
  2. Assemble a cross-functional response team, including IT, legal, and communication specialists, to ensure a coordinated and effective response
  3. Once the assessment is complete, HR is obligated to report the data breach to the appropriate supervisory authority without undue delay, and where feasible, within 72 hours of becoming aware of the incident. This notification must include details such as the nature of the breach, the categories and approximate number of data subjects affected, and the potential consequences and measures taken or proposed to address the breach
  4. Communicate details of the breach to affected individuals. Provide clear and concise information about the nature of the incident, the potential consequences, and the measures being taken to address the breach and mitigate its impact. Effective communication is essential in building trust and transparency with employees.

Ensuring GDPR compliance in international employee data transfers

The GDPR sets forth stringent requirements for such international data transfers to safeguard the privacy and rights of individuals. It emphasises the need to maintain consistent standards regardless of the geographic location of data processing, reinforcing the need for organisations to ensure compliance when transferring employee data beyond the borders of the European Economic Area (EEA) and the UK.

The GDPR places restrictions on the transfer of personal data to third countries or international organisations unless certain conditions are met. These conditions include the presence of adequate safeguards, such as Binding Corporate Rules (BCRs), Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs), or adherence to an approved code of conduct. Complying with these stipulations is crucial to guarantee that employee data retains the same level of protection when transferred internationally as it does within the EEA or the UK. Failing to meet these requirements not only exposes organisations to potential legal consequences but also jeopardises the privacy rights of individuals, contravening the core principles of GDPR.

Staying informed: keeping pace with changes in GDPR employee data retention

In the ever-evolving landscape of data protection, the GDPR remains a dynamic framework subject to ongoing updates and refinements. For HR professionals tasked with supervising and monitoring GDPR-compliant employee data retention, staying informed about these changes is paramount. 

To remain informed about GDPR updates, HR professionals can leverage a range of valuable resources. Data protection authorities, such as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the UK or their respective counterparts in other EU countries, provide crucial insights into evolving regulatory expectations. Participating in industry forums, HR webinars, and conferences dedicated to data protection is another effective way of staying up to date. You could also consider ongoing training, or working closely with legal experts who specialise in data protection. Your HR software provider should also be able to support you as needed. 


Within the framework of data protection governed by the GDPR, HR emerges as a linchpin in ensuring compliance, particularly regarding employee data retention. The GDPR requires HR departments to establish clear and well-documented data retention policies, and define specific timeframes for preserving various categories of employee information. This meticulous approach aligns with the GDPR’s principle of storage limitation, emphasising the importance of retaining personal data for no longer than necessary for the intended purposes. HR’s pivotal role extends to facilitating data subject rights, securing employee data through encryption and access controls, and orchestrating a swift and coordinated response in the event of a data breach.

Ciphr offers GDPR compliant software and GDPR eLearning courses to empower HR professionals to navigate the evolving regulatory landscape with confidence, ensuring that organisations uphold the highest standards of data protection and foster a culture of trust with employees. Book a demo today of our GDPR compliant software and see how it can empower your HR team in achieving and maintaining GDPR compliance.