An employee’s right to review his or her personnel file greatly depends on respective state laws. In California, for example, an employee has the right to review the file once a year, although exceptions are made under certain conditions. The employer may require the viewing take place during an employee’s free time. It normally isn’t permitted on demand, but must be at a time mutually convenient to both parties. Employees may review nearly everything in their files, with the exception of items such as letters of reference or documents from criminal investigations. Furthermore, employees are allowed to have a copy of any document they’ve signed, subject to reasonable costs of copying.
But employers shouldn’t feel threatened by an employee’s request to review his or her file. Of course, this is assuming the employer has been honest and objective in documenting performance. Employees have legitimate concerns about the accuracy of their files and should periodically review their contents. Employers should be ready and willing to discuss any item in an employee’s file and back up written comments with specific examples of behavior. An employee’s request to review his or her file should alert employers to the vital nature of documentation. Employee files should reflect the realities of the relationship: Notes should indicate extra effort and excellent performance in specific areas, as well as document discussions that indicate a need to alter one’s behavior or performance. To have only positive notes or negative notes would, in my opinion, raise a number of questions about the supervisor. Rarely, if ever, are employees all good or all bad. If that were the case, we would never hire the bad ones and wouldn’t need to worry about the good ones. Who, then, would need HR?
Thomas M. Terry, human resources manager at Zephyr Manufacturing Co. in Inglewood, California, says:
It’s important to view the issue of personnel records from a human resources manager and an employee’s position. As HR manager, I must strive to be fair and impartial in any situation. First of all, personnel files should be kept strictly confidential. In our company, the only individuals who are allowed to view employee personnel files are the employee, president, vice presidents and myself. Occasionally, a supervisor is allowed to see a person’s file as long as there’s a reasonable justification. Everything that affects an employee is entered or filed in his or her personnel record. That’s why it’s a touchy issue for the person accessing those files. Our company allows an employee to view his or her file as long as the request to view it is convenient for the company and the employee.
As an employee and manager, I would always want to have the option of knowing what’s in my personnel file. In some states, a third party may also review information from an employee’s file—if the employee isn’t available and has authorized his or her desire in writing. It’s always important to review state and federal labor laws before making any decisions so violations aren’t committed by either the employee or the employer.
As human resources professionals, we have an obligation to serve our company’s employees as well as our company. I strive to treat each employee with respect and grant the option of viewing one’s records. If push comes to shove, and there’s a legal battle, the employee will see records anyway. Keep in mind, there may be some items neither the company nor the employee would want revealed in public.
Personnel Journal, July 1996, Vol. 75, No. 7, p. 93.