Do Employers Have To Give Employees Access To Their Own Personnel Files?

By Posted April 1st, 2014

Employee filesIf I had a penny for every employee that I have seen march into HR and demand their personnel file, I would be rich.  OK maybe not rich, but perhaps I could afford a cappuccino since a penny doesn’t go as far as it used to.  I was recently working with one of my Australian counterparts and he asked if people in the US just threw pennies out. “What’s the point of carrying around these useless jingling items in your pocket,” he asked. But I digress. This post is about personnel files, remember?

Did you know that there is actually no federal law that guarantees an employee’s right to see their own personnel file? Some states have established their own guidelines. California, for example, (which is known for its favorable employee advocacy) has a fairly explicit ruling on this matter.

[toggle_content title=”Read summary of California statute”]

“California law requires that employers allow employees and former employees access to their personnel files and records that relate to the employee’s performance or to any grievance concerning the employee. Labor Code Section 1198.5 Inspections must be allowed at reasonable times and intervals. To facilitate the inspection, employers must do one of the following: (1) keep a copy of each employee’s personnel records at the place where the employee reports to work, (2) make the personnel records available at the place where the employee reports to work within a reasonable amount of time following the employee’s request, or (3) permit the employee to inspect the records at the location where they are stored with no loss of compensation to the employee.


The right to inspect personnel files and records does not apply to records relating to the investigation of a possible criminal offense, letters of reference, or ratings, reports, or records that (a) were obtained prior to the employee’s employment, (b) were prepared by identifiable examination committee members, or (c) were obtained in connection with a promotional exam.”

Source:  State of California Department of Industrial Relations[/toggle_content] 

It seems like US practices vary within the 50 states, with most encouraging being that an employer shall, upon reasonable request of an employee, permit that employee or an agent designated by the employee to inspect his or her own records that are used to determine qualifications for employment, promotion, additional compensation, termination or disciplinary action.

So before you go in demanding your personnel file (and giving me a penny) – be sure to check out your own state’s guidelines.