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Do Employees Have a Right to See Their Personnel File?

In general, it's a good idea to keep personnel files for all your employees. You can track their interview and hire, promotions and bonuses, and any complaints or disciplinary action. These records can come in handy later if the employee is asking for a raise, or arguing against their termination.

But does keeping a file on every employee mean that each one has a right to view, copy, or keep their personnel file? Not necessarily, but a more definitive answer may depend on where your company is located.

State-by-State Laws

No federal law requires private employers to allow employees to inspect or copy their own personnel files. But does that mean you can always deny access to those files? Not quite. While some states limit access to employee records to public employees, many states allow private employees to make written requests to view their personnel files. However, the kind of documents to which employees have access, and the conditions of that access, vary from state to state.

In Florida, for instance, employees and former employees or their representatives have a right to view medical records concerning the employee's exposure to toxic substances. In Illinois, employees may access records used to determine their qualifications for employment, promotion, transfer, additional compensation, discharge, or other disciplinary action. And California prohibits access to records relating to criminal investigations or ratings, reports, or records obtained prior to the employee's employment.

Also, in most of the states that provide employee access to their personnel files, employees are required to request the files in writing and employers may charge a copying fee.

Subpoena Power

Absent state-sanctioned access, current or former employees can generally get copies of their personnel file via subpoena accompanying employment litigation. In the case, you'll need to hand over precisely the documents requested in the court order, and an experienced employment attorney can assist you in that process.

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