Did you know that your employer is legally required to maintain records about you, including your wages, hours, workplace incidents, tax withholding, and accrued benefits? These records are typically kept in one place, known as your personnel file. This file contains critical information that can have a significant impact on your employment.
But what exactly is in your personnel file, and how can you access it? In this blog, we'll break down the key aspects of personnel files, the information they hold, and your rights as an employee to access them.
Understanding Your Personnel File
Your personnel file is like a snapshot of your employment history. It typically includes information provided by you, such as your contact details, as well as documents related to your work, such as performance evaluations. It's the place where your employer maintains records to keep track of your work history and benefits.
However, there's more to personnel files than meets the eye. In addition to the basics, your file may contain items that you may not have seen. These can include references from previous employers, comments from customers or clients, records of coaching or disciplinary meetings, and memos detailing your behavior and productivity.
Why Personnel Files Matter
Personnel files become especially significant in situations like employment disputes, demotions, transfers, or terminations. When problems arise at work, your personnel file can provide crucial insights into why these issues occurred. It can help you and your employer understand the history and context of your employment, which can be essential for resolving disputes or making informed decisions.
Accessing Your Personnel File
If you want to know what your current or former employer knows about you or what information might be shared with potential employers, you have the right to access your personnel file. This access is not only about satisfying your curiosity but also about protecting your employment rights.
In addition, your personnel file can serve as vital evidence in legal proceedings, such as cases involving workplace discrimination, wage violations, or wrongful termination. To ensure your rights are upheld, obtaining a copy of your personnel file is a smart move.
State Laws and Your Personnel File
While there is no federal law governing personnel files, many states have enacted legislation that grants employees the right to view or obtain copies of some or all the contents of their personnel records. These state laws vary, and the specific information you can access depends on where you live.
For example, these laws often grant employees the right to see evaluations, performance reviews, and documents that determine promotions, bonuses, or raises. However, some details, like letters of reference from former employers, test results, or records of investigations into workplace misconduct, may not be accessible.
For a good summary of state laws on personnel files, check out this compilation prepared by Nolo:
Alaska | California | Colorado | Connecticut | Delaware | Illinois | Iowa | Maine | Massachusetts | Michigan | Minnesota | Nevada | New Hampshire | Oregon | Pennsylvania | Rhode Island | Washington | Wisconsin
If your state is not included in the information provided, it may not have specific laws addressing personnel files. In such cases, you can consider other legal avenues, like filing a lawsuit against your employer for other employment law violations and requesting your personnel file through a process called "discovery."
Your personnel file is a treasure trove of information about your employment history. It's not just a repository of data; it's a tool that can protect your rights and provide clarity in challenging employment situations. Familiarize yourself with your state's specific laws regarding personnel files and consider seeking legal counsel when needed to ensure your rights are respected.
Deborah Yim is the founder and managing attorney of the Primera Law Group. She focuses her practice exclusively on representing employees and small businesses in all facets of labor and employment law. With over 22 years of legal practice, Deborah has also served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, a corporate litigator at a national law firm, and an employment attorney representing the U.S. Department of the Interior. Read more about Deborah here.