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This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record: Employee Access to Their Personnel File

April 27, 2018

 

From their initial job application, to federally required tax and payroll information, performance reviews, medical information, and disciplinary actions, there is a lot of information compiled on employees. This information is then kept in their personnel file or if required for compliance purposes in a separate file. It is the duty of the human resources department to ensure that these files are accurate and employees’ rights to confidentiality and privacy are protected. But as an employer, do you have to share the contents of their personnel file with an employee?

 

These records are generally considered to be the property of the company and as such, there is no federal law that gives an employee the right to see anything in their file. Any laws that regulate employee access to personnel files are made at the state level.

Below are examples of certain documents that cannot or should not be shared if requested by an employee:

 

  • Letters of reference

  • Any confidential reports from previous employers

  • Notes or records relating to criminal or workplace violation investigations

  • Any documents being prepared for use in any civil, criminal, or grievance procedures

  • Anything pertaining to future operations of the employer

 

In states that have laws providing for employee access to their personnel file, the documents available for review are usually ones they have already seen throughout the course of their employment. For example:

 

  • Job applications

  • Compensation information

  • Job description

  • Performance evaluations

  • Disciplinary records

  • Termination notices

 

Keeping in mind that state laws may vary, here are some examples of some of the rights employers may have regarding employee requests for personnel files:

 

  • They can require the review request be submitted in writing

  • The employee may be required to review them on their own time

  • Employees are not permitted to remove the records

  • An employer representative can be present during viewing

  • The employee may or may not be able to make copies

  • An employer can limit the number of requests that may be made during a year

 

Some states have no laws, while others require only public employers to provide access, and yet others specifically prohibit certain information from being released. In Pennsylvania a request must be filed while employed. In 2017 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that former employees do not have a right to request personnel records and that the Inspection of Employment Records Law (Act of 1978, No. 286) only pertains to current employees, employees on a leave of absence, or those who are laid off with reemployment rights. New Jersey on the other hand has no laws guaranteeing employees the right to access their personnel files. New York requires it of public employers only.  

 

Company policy and rules regarding personnel file requests should be in your company handbook. Which generates another item for the file….acknowledgement of receipt of handbook.

 

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