Employees, Read Your Personnel Files

The Philadelphia Inquirer, courtesy of the Kansas City Star, recently reported that employees should be aware that personnel files kept by their employers are not the property of the employee, but rather property of the company.  This is true under Pennsylvania law.

In this day and age when it is uncommon for someone to stay at a job for decades, and where there is a great deal of unemployment, it is helpful to know that if an employee needs to have access to their file they do have the right under Pennsylvania law to review the file, but not to possess a copy of it.

Pennsylvania’s Personnel Files Act allows employees the right to inspect certain portions of their employment records.  The Act also allows the employee’s agent or representative to inspect the records.  The Act does not require that the employer provide a copy of the file to the employee, but it does allow the employee to take notes of what is in the file.  The Act was passed several years ago, and thus it is silent on whether the employee may use his or her cell phone to take photos of the contents of the personnel file.

The purpose of the Personnel Files Act has been explained by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court to acknowledge the right of both public and private employees to review files held by their employers that contain information about themselves, and not to permit access to employees’ personnel files by the general public.  The Court explained that without the right of inspection, an employee would have virtually no way of correcting errors in his or her file, asserting and enforcing rights to promotion and compensation, or protecting him or herself from improper or illegal termination.

Despite defining an employee as a person who is currently employed by the company, the Court specifically stated that it did not interpret the phrase “currently employed” to prohibit an individual from obtaining his or her personnel file when such request is made contemporaneously with termination or within a reasonable time immediately following termination.  This is important because often a person who has been terminated from the company will have the need to meet with a lawyer and to know what is in their personnel file.

The article provided two very important, and smart, suggestions to employees.  First, employees should keep their own personnel files, so that when they need to search for a new job or when there is a dispute with the employer, the employee will have readily available documentation upon which to rely. Secondly, employees should annually review their personnel files so that they can both be aware as to what is included within the file and so any mistakes or discrepancies can be addressed by the employer.

It is generally a good idea, when faced with the prospect of filing for unemployment compensation, making a claim for wrongful termination, or addressing a legal dispute with a current for former employer, that the employee have documentation to back-up his or her “side of the story”.  A good place to start in this regard is to annually review one’s personnel file kept by the employer.