Does an Employee Have a Right to See Their Personnel File?

Some states allow employees access to personnel files.
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Somewhere in the recesses of human resources is a locked cabinet filled with files, and one of those files is all about you. From the very first day you stepped through the door, a file was created that details your entire work history -- at least with this company, and your previous employer probably has one on you too. You’ll find everything in it. From your application and resume to performance reviews and pay. No matter how piqued your curiosity may be, access to your personnel file could be non-negotiable.


An employee’s right to see the personnel file varies by state. Some states allow full access to these documents, while others consider it the employer’s property, and it’s up to the company whether you can see the file or not. Contact the department of labor in your state to determine the laws involving an employee’s right to personnel files.


If you live in a state that does allow employee access to personnel files, it’s usually not on-demand. The request does not need to be met on the same day. Access is given within a “reasonable” time frame. This can be anywhere from 48 hours to 14 days, depending on the state.


Not all documents need to be included in the file when turned over to the employee. As a matter of fact, an employer can withhold certain documents. For example, a manager might be collecting evidence to support a termination for cause, and this information will likely be removed before an employee sees her file. The same can also be said for an upcoming promotion, fraud investigation or documents that may implicate a third party, such as a reference letter or complaint.


When access is granted, it isn’t uncommon for a witness to be in the room with the employee. A direct supervisor is the obvious choice, but another manager or a human resources representative may be a good substitute. Having someone else in the room ensures that no documents are removed or added to the file. It also prevents an employee from altering any documents.


An employee could also be allowed to make copies of the file, depending on the laws of the state. But making copies is not as cut-and-dry as you might think. Some states allow employees to make copies of certain documents, such as salary history, and prohibit copies of other records, like performance reviews. Regardless, the employee should never make the copies herself. A manager or HR representative should do it. Contact the department of labor in your state to determine which documents can be duplicated for the employee.


Medical records should never be kept in a personnel file. An employee’s medical records are private, and other staff members do not get access to this information. Not even a direct supervisor should be able to look at these records, unless an employee's disability requires accommodation.

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