Flaps Over Files: Employees and Access to Personnel Files

filing cabinet

Personnel files. They’re sort of like school grades and medical records – everyone knows they’re important and that they contain private information, but no one’s really sure who can see them, or when. Considering that personnel files are one of the most critical assets your company maintains, it’s important to take a moment on this question so you know what to do.

The most common situation that raises questions is when an employee asks to see, review or obtain a copy of her or his personnel files. Do they have a right to this information? The answer is…it depends.

In Virginia, current law does not give employees the right to review or obtain a copy of their personnel files. However, in Pennsylvania, the state’s Personnel File Act does give employees the right to view their personnel files and take notes, within certain boundaries.

For one, Pennsylvania employees are not allowed to make copies of the files or their contents. In addition, employers are only obligated to provide access to an employee once per year, at a mutually convenient time, i.e. “during the regular business hours of the office where these records are usually and ordinarily maintained, when sufficient time is available during the course of a regular business day, to inspect the personnel files in question”.

Employers may also require requesting employees to use their own free time (i.e. not paid time) to perform the viewing session, and employers may opt to require employees to request permission writing and explain what they want to see and why.

By the way, we should take a moment and note what is and is not in a personnel file, according to the law. A “personnel file” under the statute does *not* contain:

– Records pertaining to any criminal investigation
– Letters of reference
– Documents relating to civil, criminal or grievance procedures
– Medical records
– Information available separately through the FCRA

Finally, it’s important to note that employees may not remove the personnel file from the employer’s offices.

Also… if you are a federal government contractor or if your entity is a local, county, state or federal agency, different (or additional) rules may apply. This is also true if your employees are represented by a collective bargaining agreement with additional applicable provisions negotiated into the labor contract.

There is another reason why knowing the law is important – and that’s that you should take this opportunity to make sure your personnel records are actually in existence…and are being properly maintained. An incomplete, inaccurate or woefully disorganized personnel file could trigger unexpected litigation, so keeping your records in order is of paramount importance.

Bottom Line:

Know the laws for each state in which your business operates, and consider establishing a uniform policy that meets all applicable requirements. Then, ensure that your employee records and personnel files are accurately maintained and fully compliant.

Note: This article discusses laws and requirements that vary by state and jurisdiction. Interpretations and recommendations presented as general suggestions only, are based upon HR best practices and do not constitute legal advice. Consult with a professional human resources advisor and/or your attorney for applicable recommendations specific to your business.

Selected Sources:

Pennsylvania Personnel File Act (Inspection of Employment Records Law)

Can PA employees access their personnel files upon request?

Employee Rights Under the Personnel Files Act

Are Employees Entitled to their Personnel Files in Virginia?

Image Credit: stopnlook (Flickr @ Creative Commons)

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