If you’re good at keeping secrets, you shouldn’t be when it comes to personnel files. It may be your employee’s right to know what’s in his or her personnel file, refute negative comments, and access it at any time. While the rules may vary from state to state, there are some sound business practices when it comes to personnel files.

To Include or Not to Include
When employees request to see their personnel files, it may be because they believe a supervisor—or the company—has wronged them. So you need to be cautious about what’s placed in them. The personnel file should include:
• Applications for employment.
• Wage history, including job titles and dates of promotions and transfers.
• Authorizations for deducting pay.
• Training history.
• Commendations, warnings, and discipline notices.
• Leave records and attendance records.
• Performance evaluations.
• Termination or retirement information.

Items that shouldn’t be kept in a personnel file include:
• Records relating to an investigation of possible criminal or civil offenses.
• Letters of reference.
• Testing results, except for a cumulative test score.
• Statements by coworkers related to an employee’s performance or misconduct.
• Medical records/health history.
To be safe, avoid inclusion of information that could infringe upon the privacy of an employee or an employee’s family or contain information that could somehow defame an employee.

The Accidental Viewer
There may be a time when an employer could unintentionally reveal confidential information about an employee. In one situation, a company gave salary increases to several employees. Somehow, a list of all employees who received the increases was filed in numerous personnel files.

Employees who wanted to view their files would have seen not only their salary data, but also the salary of other employees—violating the others’ privacy.

Keep Healthy Files
A supervisor may need to view an employee file for many work-related reasons. However, supervisors have no right to view most health information. The only health condition a supervisor may have access to is disability covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even under the ADA, disability-related information is accessible only in certain situations. Always keep health information separate.

Employee Requests to View Files
Most employees who ask to see their files are concerned that negative comments might be included in the file. In some states, it’s mandatory to give employees an opportunity to refute all negative comments that are included in the file. The best way to achieve this is to include a section for employee responses on the bottom of all performance/disciplinary forms. If employees sign the document, it’s reasonable to say they know it exists in their file and have had a chance to refute the information.

Out With the Old
Often, the length of time a negative comment should be kept has a direct correlation to the severity of the event. Personnel files should be routinely purged of old and outdated negative information—a minor infraction shouldn’t follow the employee forever. Employers may even consider negotiating the removal of corrective documents at the time of the original discussion.

Employers frequently are taken by surprise when employees request to view their personnel file, but it’s important to follow the rules and instruct employees to make those requests in writing. This gives you time to review the file prior to the employee’s viewing. Better yet, make it a promise to annually audit personnel files.

Above all, maintain the integrity of all confidential employee information. Lock up files and restrict access. And if you’re in doubt about how to handle employee file requests, contact legal counsel or a knowledgeable human resource consultant. IBI