A typical employee personnel file holds documents such as hiring materials (an application, resume, offer letter, and so on), contact and personal information, benefits elections, tax information, performance evaluations, disciplinary records, and more. Some of these records may be available to others in the workplace, such as a manager or HR representative; others may have to be kept confidential. (To learn the rules on privacy of personnel files, see Breach of Confidentiality of Personnel Records.)
But what if an employee wants to see his or her own personnel file? State law determines employee rights in this area, including what employees have the right to see, how often employees may see their files, and whether employees have the right to copy particular documents.
Most states that have laws allowing employees to view their personnel files don't specify which records employees are entitled to see. (There are a couple of exceptions: For example, Oregon gives employees the right to see only records that are used to determine qualifications for employment, promotion, compensation, termination, or other disciplinary action.)
However, employers generally may hold back documents that could violate the privacy of others. For example, if an employer investigated a complaint of sexual harassment and interviewed a number of employee witnesses, the employees involved in the investigation might have the right to view their own statements. However, the employer almost certainly could keep the full report confidential, in order to protect employee privacy.
State laws put limits on when or how often employees may view their files. Some states use general language, saying employees may view their records "at reasonable intervals." A number of states limit employees to two viewings a year. And, some states impose requirements on the process for requesting and viewing files. For example, employees in Minnesota must make a written request to see their personnel files. The employer then has seven working days to comply with the request (or 14 days, if employee personnel records are kept out of state).
Typically, states that allow employees to see their files also allow the company to supervise the viewing. For example, the company might require that a supervisor or manager be present when an employee views the file, to make sure nothing it changed, added, or removed.
Some states give employees the right to copy documents in their files; others don't. If employees are entitled to copies of documents, the employer generally has the right to make the copy. In some states, employees are entitled to free copies. Others allow employers to charge employees for copying costs.
Some states allow employees to submit a rebuttal to items in their personnel files. For example, if the employee disagrees with a statement in the file (such as a performance evaluation) or believes the file includes incorrect information, the employee may have the right to add a written rebuttal and explanation to the file.
As you can see, the law on access to personnel files varies significantly from state to state. To find out what your state requires and allows, contact your state labor department.