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Creating A Personnel File Access Policy

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Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are required to keep accurate records of hours worked by employees. One company thought the best way to maintain accuracy was to go straight to the source, so it paid employees based on self-completed time sheets. To keep unscrupulous employees in check, the company required managers to verify the time sheets before submitting them to the supervisor of facilities who then submitted them to the CEO for approval of the payment of wages.

Seemed like a good system, except for one problem — no one was looking out for unscrupulous management employees. The supervisor of facilities arbitrarily adjusted time sheets either by double penalizing employees who were late for their shift or by reducing compensable hours for any reason or no reason at all.

Poor record-keeping combined with failure to pay employees for "breaks" that were, in fact, compensable work time resulted in almost $528,000 in damages against the company and the CEO. (Chao v. Self Pride, Inc., 4th Cir., Nos. 06-1203/06-1369, 2007)

Whether because of unscrupulous supervisors like this, curiosity, or fear that their personnel files are not an accurate representation of their tenure, more and more employees are demanding access to their personnel files. More than half of the states have laws governing employee access to employer records.

Minnesota recently went so far as to approve legislation (effective January 1, 2008) that requires employers with 20 or more employees to provide all new hires with written notice of their right to review their personnel files under the law.

Even if you reside in a state in which you are not required by law to give employees access to their personnel files, you should consider creating an access policy anyway. A worker who feels he/she has been wronged may wonder what you're trying to hide by denying access. Allowing the worker to peruse the file and find nothing amiss may help extinguish the litigation fire.

A personnel file access policy should address:

  • Who? Consider giving access to current employees, former employees, and employees' representatives.
  • When? You can limit access to regular office hours, for example.
  • Where? To maintain the integrity of the files, require that files stay within the HR department. (You may also dictate that employee file inspections be supervised by a member of the HR staff.)
  • What? Specify what employees can see (e.g., performance evaluations) and what's off-limits (e.g., letters of reference).
  • How? Do employees have to provide a written request? How much notice must they provide?
  • Frequency? Some states limit access to twice in a calendar year, for example.
  • Cost? You may charge employees a reasonable fee for making copies (if you decide to allow employees to make copies).

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