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Is our company legally obligated to allow current or former employees to review or copy their personnel files?

There is no federal law that requires private employers to provide employees access to their personnel files, but there are many state laws that do grant access. Because employees’ access rights vary from state to state, employers should know the personnel file access laws for each state in which they employ individuals. 

Often state laws address issues such as a) who has access to information from the file, including current and former employees; b) the frequency of access; c) who can obtain copies; d) exceptions to the information accessible to employees; e) the type of records to be kept; f) how record corrections can be made; g) what legal remedies are available; and h) what information may be disclosed to third parties.

Even without a state requirement, establishing a policy helps employees, managers and human resource staff be knowledgeable about the company’s approach. To develop a policy, an employer should first verify the laws for all the states in which the company employs people. A multistate employer needs a flexible policy, so it is applicable to all employees. For example, a statement such as “Access to personnel files will be provided according to state law” is appropriate. Organizations should consider the following questions before drafting a policy:

  • Will employees be allowed to photocopy items in their files?

  • Will access be granted to all employees or only to specific employees, at the organization’s discretion?

  • Will employees be allowed to assign their right to inspect their files to a union representative or lawyer?

  • Should the organization have a procedure for employees to challenge information they believe to be incorrect?

  • Should the organization allow employees access to their personnel files only for specific reasons?

  • Should the organization limit employees’ right to review disciplinary actions and performance appraisals?

  • Are there limitations for confidential information? (Employees should not have access to confidential information, such as former employer reference checks and confidential investigations.)

  • Should the organization limit the frequency of an employee’s access to his or her personnel file, such as the number of times per year or other time frame?

Employers are well served if they also consider which records to retain and how to organize the files. SHRM’s guidance on personnel records is helpful. Also, clear communication about how employees may access their files is helpful to managers, employees and HR. Including this information in the employee handbook is a simple way to communicate the policy.


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