Supervisors have decision making responsibilities that affect the people they manage. Deciding which employee deserves a promotion and who is the best candidate for a special assignment sometimes requires a look at the records -- including employees' personnel files. Reading through past performance appraisals may help in selecting the employee best suited to fill a slot. Whether a supervisor is allowed to enter the human resources department and request an employee’s file depends on company policy.
Much of the data gathered on employees is of a confidential nature. When creating a policy that involves access to personnel files, many companies allow only those with “a need to know" the ability to review a personnel file. Based on this type of policy, a supervisor with a valid reason to view a file would be allowed to read through documents related to an employee's performance. Such access usually is allowed within the confines of the HR department, as the file must remain in a secure area. Privacy rights do not extend to employee e-mails at work. A supervisor is allowed to read employee e-mails and monitor Internet use.
Information found in a employee’s personnel file may include an application, offer letter, salary and training history, performance appraisals and any awards or commendations received during her tenure with the company. Reports of any coaching and counseling sessions may be found in the file. Company policy may allow a supervisor to review an employee’s file, however the rule may be different when an employee asks to view her file. State legislation governs the employee’s right to access the file. Some states laws are more stringent than others on defining exactly which documents in a personnel file an employer is legally bound to disclose and additionally, which records employees may copy when accessing the file. Unionized organizations may have to follow policies set forth in the union contract, as long as they comply with state laws.
Federal Legislation and Record Keeping
Accesses to employee records are, in part, governed by federal legislation. For example, according the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, medical records must not be intermingled with other personnel data. This rule also applies to an I-9 form, a document that verifies an individual’s right to work in this country. If company policy allows a supervisor the right to review an employee’s file, health and immigration records must be located in a separate area to protect the employee’s privacy.
Acceptable Vs. Prohibited Information
Beyond formal performance management documents, notes or progress reports written by a supervisor regarding an employee's performance can be part of the personnel file. Information that should never be collected in an employee's file are non-work issues such as an employee's political affiliations, a personal blog or other communications that have nothing to do with work.
Jan Simon is a career and life coach with more than 20 years of experience in corporate human resources. She holds a bachelor's degree from Central Michigan University. Simon enjoys writing career articles and is a columnist for the CV Weekly. She also publishes a weekly blog called Life on the Sunny Side.