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Your Rights Personnel Files

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Personnel files are the employer’s record of your employment, and the documents that employers collect can negatively or positively affect you and your future employment.  Federal law does not require employers to grant access to personnel files, but some states have laws which do provide for access. While other documents may not be part of your official personnel file, it is best to personally keep track of as many files as you are given, such as the documents you’re given when you’re hired, the company’s employee handbook, your reviews and disciplinary documents, and any other documents that you have signed or received from the employer. By doing this, you will have some of the original paperwork and you do not have to ask your employer about these documents, as some employers either deny access entirely, do not allow employees to make copies, or require employees to pay for copying any document they take from their personnel files. For more information about personnel files, please see below:

1. What is considered part of my personnel file?
2. Do I have the right to access my personnel files?
3. Can I have copies of my personnel files?
4. What should I do when I check my files?
5. What if there is something that I do not agree with?
6. Can I remove something from my file that belongs to me?

1. What is considered part of my personnel file?

Personnel files are the documents that employers collect with information about their employees, which may include hiring or firing information, salary information, letters to clients, and internal memoranda. When employers conduct evaluations and take disciplinary actions, this information is typically added to your personnel file. Personnel files are the employer’s record of your employment, and can negatively as well as positively affect you and your future employment.

2. Do I have the right to access my personnel files?

It depends. Personnel files are considered the property of the company, and federal law does not guarantee a right to access your personnel file. However, some states have laws relating to personnel files laws that grant or deny an employee access to his or her own personnel files. In addition, some employers have their own policies in regards to employee personnel file access. The employer’s policy may be found in the employee handbook, or you could ask the HR department about the company’s policy. For more information, please see our [state personnel file laws] page. [link and page to follow]

3. Can I have copies of my personnel files?

It depends. Employers may only allow you to view your documents and they may not allow you to make copies. If they do allow you to make copies, you may have to do it by your own means, meaning that you may have to provide your own paper and pay for the copies being made. Another common policy is that a company representative be present while you’re reviewing the files to make sure that all of the documents remain in the file.

4. What should I do when I check my files?

When you are able to view your files, if you are not allowed to make copies, then you should take notes of the documents that are in your file. The notes should include the name or description of the document, the date it was created (if indicated), and the author. 

5.What if there is something that I do not agree with?

If you happen to find something in your files that you believe is untrue or you disagree with, try to follow up with the appropriate person and make a rebuttal in the file. You should also take notes on the negative information, just in case it is an issue in the future. However, if you are currently involved in a lawsuit against your employer, or think that you might be bringing one in the future, you should consult with an attorney to determine the best strategy to review and respond to negative information in your personnel file.

6. Can I remove something from my file that belongs to me?

Never take documents or papers that don't belong to you. Never even attempt to access information, either on computer or in company files, that you have no right to know. Anything that is personal to you, such as letters of praise or thanks that were sent to you, can be removed, but do so cautiously, as it may be better to copy it than remove it from your file. Anything related to the company or the operation of the company and its business, however, should not be taken without permission.While it may be tempting to take confidential company records or access computer files without authorization, this is a big mistake for a number of reasons. First of all, it may be illegal and you might end up facing criminal charges or civil claims as well as trying to fight your termination. Second, it may give the company an excuse to fire you where none existed before. Even if you can prove that you were illegally fired, your employer can use your misconduct to severely limit your ability to recover money or obtain re-employment in a lawsuit. Finally, if you signed a so-called "confidentiality agreement" at the time you were hired, taking confidential documents could subject you to civil action for breach of contract.

This page has been adapted from Job Rights and Survival Strategies by Paul H. Tobias and Susan Sauter.