Now You See It, Now You Don't: A Guide to a Paperless HR Department

1 Jul, 2003

By: Robert K. Tenzer

Achieving a paperless HR function has been as elusive as the Holy Grail to most companies. Of course there are HR processes devoid of paper, but it always seems that somewhere there are copies of documents we simply must have. Sometimes it’s the legal eagles or the most conservative of us that insists on a hard copy. Other times we create “islands of paperless technology” only to be connected by paper processes. But fear not, it really is possible to eliminate the paper files once and for all.

So in this age of heavily guarded capital spending, how do we justify going down the path of using technology to eliminate the paper? Let’s assume you have your manager’s buy-in to evaluate further. Where do you start? Do you try to do it internally? Do you outsource it? Do you use existing systems or scrap them and buy a new HRIS? Even if there were easy answers to these questions, we then must ask ourselves, “How do we get our organizations to culturally make the leap from paper to paperless?”

Internal Assessment

Like any major project, you should start with a needs assessment. This means identifying your “points of pain”. Some may not be so obvious because you are accustomed to living with them. For instance: Is my time to hire longer than it should be? Is my cost per hire as low as it could be? Are my compliance audits as easy as they should be? These are but a few of the questions an organization needs to ask to determine if they are ready to go paperless.

Even if the answer to these questions points to a paperless solution, will the forecasted volume of hires justify the change? Will the costs reap benefits for years to come? The bottom line of any needs assessment is to ask “Are we at a point where financially and in practical application a paperless solution will enhance our operation?”


Many of our processes are vestiges from an earlier time. We come into our role as HR in the contact center with a fresh set of eyes, begin to tackle the obvious issues but accept paper-laden inefficiency because the process seems to be working. Plus, we have urgent recruitment and employee relation needs. But don’t forget the adage, “It’s hard to remember your objective is to drain the swamp when you’re up to your tail in alligators.”

Ask yourself, “How much better could this be? With some re-engineering, would my resources be spent more wisely?” If you think about your HR processes with a blank sheet of paper, you might just redesign them from the ground up.


On close examination, if you assess that your needs are ripe for improvement, don’t be a hero…gain some partnerships. That means bringing into the fold people from the operating group and your MIS team. You’ve got to show them how this will make their lives easier and save money for the organization. Here’s where you need some benchmarking data.

Where do you start? A great place is with potential vendors. Have them come in and show their wares. Get ROI information from them and then validate it with their clients. There are real success stories out there. You’ll learn about them. You’ll also learn which vendors may be more optimistic than realistic about their products. Be sure the MIS expert grills the technical folks from the vendor. How will this interface with existing systems? Will we be 100 percent paperless? Is it scalable? What about support, patches, upgrades? Is it web-enabled?


Now you’re armed with data you can take to senior management. You know what your company’s actual spending is on paper assessments, forms and copies. You see the dollars devoted to placement fees and your own recruitment-related labor. You’ve identified costs associated with training and retraining. You’ve quantified how long your time to hire is and how much revenue you’ve sacrificed or service levels you’ve missed because of late hires. Now you’re getting senior management’s attention.

After you have buy-in to move ahead with creating an anticipated ROI, you need to divide your plan for automation into several sections. First, pick the process that gets you the most bang for the buck. For example, choose your call center assessment tools. You can build or buy. Go for a flat fee license route so you are not charged on a per applicant basis. If you can take a pre-validated assessment off the shelf that automatically scores and keeps a record, then you’ve just saved yourself a fortune.

Now take a pulse check. What went right, what didn’t? How can I continue to improve as we go down the path to paperless? Have your operating group report on the benefits they are seeing. This adds credibility to your paperless punch.

When management sees how much you are saving and how smoothly your first process is working, tackle another. Rank each process and its benefits strategically, so your organization will begin to eagerly look forward to each. It is possible to create an HR Service Center where processes like benefits, audits, verifications of employment and most initial employee relations or benefit inquiries are handled. In one contact center that did this, their HR clerical staff was reduced by 54 percent and was able to re-assign those employees to handle other needs at the company. Their background searches—including criminal and reference checking—was outsourced, saving about $100,000 per year in additional labor costs.

It is possible to eliminate all new-hire forms with online forms. (Verify with your legal counsel.) The “I agree” button can be considered just as good as a signature. That’s because each applicant creates an individual profile when they complete their application. Then, if hired, the employee calls up that profile in training and completes the new hire “paperwork”. The employee file is electronic. The only form you may actually keep is an I-9. You can simply keep these in a separate binder or scan them into the HR file with a low cost scanner. The same holds true for any post-hire documentation. You can either attach to an HR file or scan it.

Training and Evaluation

Beyond HR processes, there are many tools available on the market to create and deliver training content in an online format and keep track of participants and results. Again, you can build or buy. Online training improves consistency of the message delivery. Don’t plan to make all your training online. Plan on a blended approach. Pick a training session that would include the largest audience (and it helps if it also contains the driest material). An online approach to these topics can spice them up, improve ROI and boost retention. Your trainers and students will thank you.

Now that you’ve got them hired and trained, how about ongoing maintenance? What about scheduled or merit increases? These are so often late in the frenetic environment of the contact center. Your current HRIS may have a manager self-service module. If not, you may be able to add one on. Manager self-service can remind us when the next raise is due, offer an online form to complete the raise request, then automatically route it to the next approver.

Business rules can be built in so the document keeps routing up the chain of command. Most supervisors don’t want their area VP approving their employee raises because they forgot. Voila! Late increases and resulting employee dissatisfaction go away.

If manager self-service feels good, employee self-service feels even better. Time-consuming processes such as benefit enrollments are easily handled. Routine transactions, including change of address, new W-4 information or paycheck viewing, can happen without anyone on the HR team getting involved.

It’s easy to get excited about automation. But these changes are more than just technological. They are also cultural. We must be careful not to move so fast that we alienate our customer or lose the human touch. We are after all, human resources. Training on systems and on change management becomes critical here. You need a good communication plan for before, during and after the project. This is different for each company, but make senior management part of the communication supporting the changes.

Users should have the opportunity to express their concerns and suggestions. Each should be addressed. Why? Because without your customers’ buy-in, the best-designed systems are destined to fail.

An implementation with a solid foundation of benchmarking, ROI analysis, well thought out training and communication will make the organization receptive to your changes. You will find yourself reaping the benefits of your new paperless world. It’s not easy to get there, but like most process improvement, the end result makes the effort worthwhile.