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My employee asked to see their personnel file, what do I do?

November 15, 2021by Barbara Flynn0

What is the employer’s obligation to show its employees their personnel files? This is a concern because the files contain confidential information such as performance reviews, applications, and salary details. They also may include the results of any complaints, misconduct reviews, performance improvement plans, and termination notices. This information is typically kept in a secure file location whether it be a physical or digital location.

Employers should have a policy regarding employee files.  The policy should contain information about who has access and how access is obtained.  Polices protect employers and employees from potential litigation and are a communication tool so that everyone knows the process.  Remember less is better; so limit the access for the protection of all.

There are no federal laws regarding access to employee files for the private sector.  There are some state specific guidelines employers should be aware of.

State laws vary greatly so it is important to know what the laws are in your state.  The following states have laws on how employers should handle personnel files.

Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Some specifics define how employers should respond to records requests, what documents they should include, what time frame the employer must respond in, and how often employees may view their files.

Below are a few examples of the types of laws you may find across different states.

  • Employees must have access to see their personnel files.
  • Employees can make copies or take notes when viewing their files.
  • Requests to review their files must be made in writing.
  • Employees may insert comments or rebuttals in their personnel file.
  • Companies must notify employees when putting anything negative in their personnel file.
  • Employees cannot view letters of reference or certain parts of their file.

In states where there is not a specific law, the employer should clearly define the company’s policy regarding accessing personnel files.

Finally, employers should review employee files annually to organize, update, and dispose of any outdated files. Each state has timelines for how long employers must retain these files after an employee is no longer with the company.

Remember, we are here to assist you with any of your HR needs including personnel file audits and maintenance.


Barbara Flynn, MSHR, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Barbara Flynn

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