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The Pennsylvania Inspection of Employment Records Law guarantees employees the right to view their personnel files at work.

The law applies to all Pennsylvania employers and covers current employees, those on leave and those who are laid off with recall rights. The law doesn’t cover former employees or applicants, nor does it require employers to maintain personnel files.

Inspection rights. Under the law, any employee (or employee’s designated agent) has the right to inspect his or her personnel file. Employers must make those files available at reasonable times at the place where the files are normally stored.

You can request that employees give you advance notice and require them to view the files during normal business hours. You can also insist that employees view the file on their own time, not company time.

Employees can view the file and take notes, but you don’t have to let them take the file away to copy it. You can, however, make copies for the employee and charge a reasonable fee.

Generally, employees can see the file once a year, unless they have “just cause” to see it more often. Disputes are handled by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

It’s a good idea to make employees request access in writing. By using a form to make this request, you create a paper trail showing who requested the file and when.

Practical considerations. Employers should track access to personnel files very carefully. Each item in the file is potential evidence in a lawsuit.

You should inventory the documents in the file, and keep a record of which documents are shown to the employee or agent.

You have the right to have a representative stay with the employee or agent while that person is viewing the file. Be sure to check the returned file if you aren’t present during the inspection, to make sure nothing has been removed or altered.

Employee “agents.” The law permits employees to designate an agent to view the file. Any agent designation must be in writing and signed by the employee. The designation “shall be for a specific date or dates and shall indicate either the purpose for which the inspection is authorized or the particular parts of the employee’s personnel file” the agent is authorized to inspect.

How to prepare files for viewing. Clearly, grabbing the file and throwing it on the desk in front of the employee will not do. Employers should comb through the files in light of the employee’s request, and pull only those items that meet the criteria in the employee’s request.

What is a personnel file?

Pennsylvania law says that a “personnel file” means:

  • Employment applications.
  • Wage or salary information.
  • Notices of commendation.
  • Warnings or disciplinary notices.
  • Employee authorization of deductions or withholding of pay.
  • Fringe benefit information.
  • Leave records.
  • Employment history with the employer, including salary history.
  • Job title(s).
  • Dates of changes.
  • Retirement records.
  • Performance evaluations.

The law specifically exempts the following from disclosure:

  • Employee records relating to criminal investigations.
  • Letters of reference.
  • Documents being developed or used in a civil, criminal or grievance procedure.
  • Confidential medical records.
  • Materials used by the employer in planning for future operations.
  • Information available to the employee under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. 

Case study: Employee access to peer-review documents

Earl Whitehead, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, sought a promotion to full professor. Part of the evaluation process involved peer evaluations by professors at other universities. When the university cited those peer reviews as the reason for denying Whitehead’s promotion, he sought access to the personnel file that included the peer reviews.

The university refused, arguing the peer reviews are akin to reference letters and, therefore, are exempted from disclosure. Whitehead appealed to the state’s Department of Labor & Industry, arguing the peer reviews were performance evaluations and subject to disclosure.

The state labor department sided with Whitehead and ordered the university to provide the reviews. But the university resisted and appealed to Commonwealth Court.

This time, the university won. The court ruled that performance evaluations may be done only by someone employed by the same employer as the person requesting the file. Therefore, the peer reviews were reference letters and exempt from the law.   

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