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Ask an HR Expert: Is My Company Required to Let Workers See their Files?

It's a good idea to have a clear policy on providing employees access to their personnel information, says a SHRM HR Knowledge Advisor.

A woman is looking at a file box in an office.

The short answer is: Possibly.

When someone asks to see his or her personnel file, it’s natural for HR professionals to wonder why. Does the individual want to copy information and use it in a legal complaint? Or does he or she merely want to check if the records are accurate?

Although there is no federal legislation requiring private employers to give workers access to their personnel files, there are state laws that may regulate an organization’s responsibilities to their current and former employees.

Often, state laws address issues such as who can view the file; the frequency of access allowed; who can obtain copies; exceptions to the information employees can see; the type of records that must be kept; how to make corrections to the files; what legal remedies are available; and, finally, what data may be disclosed to third parties.

Even when a state has no such regulations, such as Texas, for example, you may want to create a policy regarding access to personnel files. This ensures that employees and managers understand that the company follows a consistent approach to the issue.

Start by reviewing which laws may apply. Multistate employers will need a flexible policy that covers all workers. It might include a statement such as “Access to personnel files will be provided according to state law.”

It’s also important to determine what constitutes a personnel record that a person can view. Generally, organizations place sensitive information, such as pre-employment reference and background checks, in a confidential file that employees cannot see. Most organizations, however, allow workers to access a general personnel file, which may include applications, job descriptions, performance reviews, and warnings or disciplinary notices. It is always a good idea to have your policy reviewed by an attorney, and companies may want to consider the following questions before drafting specific rules: 

  • Must employees request to see their employee file in writing?
  • Will workers be allowed to photocopy items in their files?
  • Will access be granted to everyone or only to specific people, at the organization’s discretion?
  • Will people be allowed to assign their right to inspect their files to a union representative or lawyer?
  • Should the organization have a procedure for workers to challenge information they believe to be incorrect?
  • Will people be allowed to review their files after hours?
  • Should the organization allow employees to see their personnel files only for specific reasons?
  • Should the company limit workers’ right to review disciplinary actions and performance appraisals?
  • Should the organization limit how often an employee can view his or her file in a calendar year or some other time frame?
  • A good policy will cover these issues and leave no doubt about which records employees can access.

John Dooney, SHRM-SCP, is the manager of workforce analytics at SHRM.

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