It’s not always a comfortable moment when an employee – or former employee – asks for access to his or her personnel files. You may suspect, often with reason, that the person is looking for legal rope to hang your organization with.

So what do you do? The answer depends on the law, and your policy.

Legal requirements
A number of states – about 20, at last count – require that you allow employees periodic access to their files. A few of these states also mandate access for former employees.

Even if you don’t operate in any of these states, though, you may want to consider having a policy that allows employee access. It’s one way to foster a spirit of openness and trust.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you must throw the files open and let people photocopy anything and everything.

Employment law attorneys suggest that you can safely allow access to such material as:

  • initial job applications
  • notices of personnel action like transfer, promotion or discipline; and
  • training records.

What not to show them
Unless your state’s law says otherwise, you may want to deny access to:

  • references,
  • investigation records, and
  • any document that would violate the confidentiality of another employee.

Whatever your policy on photocopying – some state laws require it be allowed – never let an employee take personnel records out of the HR office, or whatever room you have set aside for such viewing. And make sure an HR person is present.

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