Everything you need to build a robust custom HR database

Start with a basic employee directory and use form integrations, templates, and AI to expand from there.

Do not index
Do not index
Hide CTA
Hide CTA
Hide cover
Hide cover
The early days of any newly formed human resources team tend to be hectic. Management often approves the first full-time HR employee a little too late, after something broke and a lack of proper onboarding or performance reviews led to a painful departure. Or maybe everything is right on track—but you’re starting from scratch. In either case, you’ve been brought into the fold to build structured, well-documented HR processes.
At first, purpose-built human resources apps like BambooHR and Workday may seem like the obvious choice to support these efforts. But what these apps do is surprisingly easy to build on your own. And the DIY approach isn’t just more affordable than apps that charge per employee, per month (even when an account has zero activity), it’s also more customizable. All you need are three things:
  1. A list of which data points and events you need to collect and organize (see below).
  1. A tool that anyone can use to submit information and answer HR-related questions.
  1. A secure, searchable database to store and organize relevant information.
Pulling together an HR database isn’t all that different from building your own CRM database in Airtable or Notion. Except that, there’s nothing wrong with giving a homegrown CRM time to evolve and improve. New HR managers don’t have that luxury. They need fully fleshed-out databases ready to go on day one. Here are a few tricks and templates to get you there.

Start with a basic employee directory template

The foundation of any HR database is the employee directory. A place where all staff information lives. You could sit down and brainstorm your own list of what fields each profile should include, but most popular database apps have templated directories ready for you to use as a springboard. Notion’s People Directory and Airtable's Employee Directory are both great options if you’re already using those apps. For this guide, though, all of the examples will be based around SmartSuite’s Employee Directory.
Create a free SmartSuite account and click on Add New Solution, after arriving at your new account dashboard. Select Start with Template, search for Employee Directory, and click on Use Template. It’s seeded with 20 fake employee profiles right off the bat, so take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the database and its views before customizing any fields or data.
notion image
SmartSuite’s Employee Directory Solution Template (Card View)
The card view, for example, shows an employee photo at the top of each profile with data listed below it. Switch to the Kanban view and you can see columns of employees grouped by Department. Note that unless you click on a record, you’ll only see what’s selected from the Fields to Display list. And that’s a crucial distinction if you want to share your directory outside of the HR team.
Let’s say you want to create a version of the employee directory that only displays certain information. You might want to make emails public but hide home addresses, for example. Click Share View (in the same row as Fields to Display) and toggle the switch in the permissions pane that pops up. Now, anyone who has the Shareable Link can sort, filter, or group records based on what’s in the FIelds to Display list – even if they don’t have a SmartSuite account. But only you and other solution administrators can click on an employee and view all of their information.
notion image
Instead of sharing the whole database, SmartSuite lets you share views
Once you feel comfortable with the layout and view options, switch to a Grid View, tick the checkbox in the Name column and click Delete Records. It’s time to start adding real people to your directory.

Generate an employee onboarding form based on database fields

Between sending welcome messages and scheduling training sessions, you want current employees to have access to new hire contact information as early as possible. And since you’ll need the new hire to provide information you don’t currently have (e.g., emergency contact numbers) the fastest way to get data into the directory is with an onboarding form that adds an employee profile to your directory when the form is submitted. And the easiest way to create that form is with an AI prompt based on existing database fields.
Start by creating a free Fillout account, log in, and click ‘+ New Form’ in the upper right corner of the screen. Even though you’ll eventually connect this form to SmartSuite, pick Blank form, choose a theme, and click Create Form. Give it a name and select Continue. Now comes the fun part.
Open your Employee Directory in SmartSuite and add all the fields you want on your onboarding form to the Fields to Display list. Then, click the three dots next to New Record and pick one of the apps from the Export list. You’re going to create an AI prompt based on the field names. So, open the exported database and copy everything in the first row.
notion image
Using AI to generate a form based on existing database fields
Back in your blank form in Fillout, click the purple sparkle icon next to the Search fields textbox. This is your AI form builder, which can generate forms based on prompts as simple as “employee onboarding form” or based on lists of questions/fields copied from another app. Choose the Multiple questions tab, paste the field names from your exported database, and click Add questions. After a few seconds, you should have an employee onboarding form with questions and field types that match your employee directory.
That takes care of form creation. But we still need submission data to sync to SmartSuite automatically. Let’s take a look at how to integrate FIllout and SmartSuite by setting up another important HR database.

Sync an employee evaluation form to a private database

Storing and organizing performance reviews in a centralized repository helps you uncover trends in team-specific turnover rates, salary-tenure correlations, and career progression. And with an employee directory already set up, all you need to do is create an employee evaluation form that syncs feedback data to fields that only HR managers can view.
This time, imagine that what you want to create is based on an existing form, like this employee evaluation template. One way to create fields in SmartSuite for each of your Fillout questions is with the same CSV export > import that you did with your onboarding form, just reversing the app order:
  1. Open the form template in Fillout.
  1. Publish the form.
  1. Enter dummy answers for every question and submit the form.
  1. In the form editor, click the download icon (to the right of Help?) in the Results tab.
Then, to import a CSV file to SmartSuite, start by creating a new “App” by clicking the ‘+’ just below the Solution name and naming it Performance Reviews. Next, click the down arrow on the right side of the App name and choose CSV Import from the Import Data list. With this feature, you can create fields based on the questions from your Fillout form. Upload the CSV file and map questions to new fields by clicking the associated dropdown menu and selecting + Add new.
notion image
Importing data into SmartSuite is faster than creating fields one by one
Finally, head to the form editor in Fillout and open the Integrations tab. Click SmartSuite, choose your employee directory from the connection and solutions lists, and Performance Reviews from the App list. All that’s left to do is associate database fields (left column) with form questions (right column). Complete a test form submission and you should see Fillout response data in your SmartSuite database within a minute.
When you’re finished setting up your Performance Reviews app, you’ll be able to create chart views based on data from employee evaluation form submissions and link individual reviews to hidden fields in employee profiles that live in your directory app.
Now that you can easily sync data between Fillout and SmartSuite, it’s just a matter of putting together workflows and apps for other necessary HR documents.

What else to add to your HR database

Take a second to appreciate what you’ve built, all by yourself: A powerful, customized human resources tool. With the groundwork laid out and settled, each additional form and field should feel easier to set up. If you’re not sure what else to add, take a look at BambooHR’s list of features and start thinking about which ones you can DIY. Here are some examples:
  • Time off request form: Sync submissions from a PTO form template to an App in SmartSuite so you can share a Who’s Out Today calendar view and get a bird’s-eye view of vacation trends and upcoming skeleton crews.
  • Employee engagement survey: Track staff satisfaction and happiness company-wide. Then break it down by team or department to identify opportunities for improvement.
  • Expense reimbursement form: Give employees an easy-to-use portal for submitting photos of receipts and expense details that, as an added bonus, can be automatically summed up in SmartSuite for budget forecasting.
  • Exit interview form: Collect information that will guide your efforts to lower employee turnover, get proactive company culture improvements, and streamline resource allocation for HR managers.
  • Employee complaint form: Show employees that work-related incidents are taken seriously and documented thoroughly. A paper trail tells staff that HR won’t let issues be swept under the rug.
Don’t forget that you don’t need to stick to HR form templates provided by the app you’ve chosen. At least, in the case of Fillout, you can create forms based on a 1-2 sentence AI prompt or a list of questions that you pulled together from elsewhere.

Custom HR databases and data security

Obviously, if you’re asking employees to share sensitive personal information with you, it’s your responsibility to keep it safe. So while the integrations in this guide can be thrown together in a matter of hours, make sure to spend at least double that reviewing your legal and regulatory obligations alongside the security guarantees of the software-as-a-service apps you use.
Fillout promises data in transit is encrypted over HTTPS/TLS, and SmartSuite’s security page touts support for a long list of compliance frameworks. And if you’re unsure of how high to set your benchmarks, you can always compare your DIY solution to the security guarantees of purpose-built HR apps.
Who knows, you may be able to present the new company directory to your boss before the end of your first week. Or, it could take longer than that to finish, but you never end up paying for HR software per employee. The most important thing is giving the company secure, reliable processes and resources. And a powerful form builder connected to a flexible database is all you really need.
“HR Database” icon (banner image) by monkik from Noun Project.
Ryan Farley

Written by

Ryan Farley

Ryan Farley is a writer and co-founder of Pith and Pip. He lives in Bangkok, Thailand where he previously managed the editorial team of a web marketing agency.