Current and former employees usually have some right to see the contents of their personnel files under state law. How much access you are entitled to varies from state to state. Even if your state's laws don't give employees the right to access their personnel records, your employer's policies might: Check your employee handbook to find out. (For information on your state's law, contact your state labor department.) Keep in mind that when employee access to personnel records is mandated by law or by written policy, employers still don't have to allow employees to see sensitive items such as information assembled for a criminal investigation, reference letters, and information that might violate the privacy of other people.
Read on to learn more about when you should check your personnel file, and the steps to take when you do. (For a broader look at employees' privacy rights, check out Nolo's Right to Privacy at Work FAQ.)
When You Should Check Your Personnel File
There are times when it makes good sense to check your personnel file. They include:
- After a major change in your life. If you have moved, married, divorced, had a child, or gone through another of life's big events, you should make sure the personnel documents in your file are up to date. Do they include your correct name, address, and next of kin? Do you need to change your beneficiaries or emergency contact information? Make any changes necessary to make sure your personnel information reflects your current situation.
- If you are planning to apply for an internal promotion or transfer. When you seek another position at your company, the decision maker might review your personnel file, so you should, too. Make sure your file includes all of the positive information it should, such as copies of performance evaluations, customer commendations, awards, and so on. If there's any unexpected negative information in the file, follow up with the appropriate person.
- If you are planning to leave your job. If you anticipate a job search in your future, check your personnel file to make sure there are no surprises. Does it reflect your current position and salary, which prospective employers are likely to check on and verify? Is there anything negative in the file that could work against you -- and, if so, is there anything you can do about it?
- If you are worried about getting fired. If your job may be at risk -- especially if you're concerned about being wrongfully terminated -- you should find out exactly what's in your file. Does it include all of the positive information that should be there? Is there anything missing? Is there negative information in the file that you weren't aware of?
What to Do When You Check Your Personnel File
The actions you take when you examine your file will depend on your reasons for checking the documents in the first place. For example, if you just want to make sure that your ex-husband is no longer listed as your emergency contact and beneficiary for company benefits, you can simply check those items, ask the appropriate person to make any changes, and perhaps follow up in a month or so to make sure the documents were corrected.
If, however, you are concerned that the contents of your file might be used against you or changed to reflect badly on you, then you will have to take a more thorough approach. Most states that allow employees to see their personnel files allow the employer to have a company representative present, to make sure nothing in the file is removed, changed, or added. But even with a company chaperone, you can take the following steps:
- Take notes. Make a list of every document in the file, including its date, author, and contents. If the company later tries to alter or add documents, your list will help you show that these actions were taken after the fact.
- Make copies. If your employer or your state's law gives you the right to copy items in your file, do so. You may be entitled to copy only certain documents (such as those you have signed). Also, the company may insist that it handle the copying.
- Follow up or rebut negative information. If you find documents in the file that will work against you, you have a couple of options. Some states give you the right to insert a rebuttal in the file. Even if your state's law doesn't provide the right to a rebuttal, you can follow up with the appropriate person. And take careful notes on any negative information in the file, in case your employer tries to use it against you.
For comprehensive information on workplace privacy rights and all other employment law issues, get Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Repa (Nolo).