Top 6 Questions About Personnel Files Answered Printer friendly format

 Concerns about compliance keep you up at night. You must maintain impeccable records. You must understand state and federal laws when it comes to record retention. Your company counts on you to know and be all things HR. The bottom line is this: the primary focus of a human resources manager is knowledge.

Human resources managers must be in the know when it comes to personnel files. To help you sleep better at night and reach genius status in the office, I have for you a five-part series on personnel files. I’ll cover everything from what goes in personnel files (and what does not go in files) to what you need to be doing with pertinent employee information that doesn’t go in the personnel file to how technology impacts personnel files.
Our first article starts with the top 6 questions and answers about personnel files.
     1.         What is a personnel file? A personnel file is simply a journal of the employees. Human resources expert Susan M. Heathfield describes the personnel file this way, “A personnel file is an employers’ saved documentation of the history and status of the entire employment relationship with an individual employee.”
     2.         Why are personnel files kept? Personnel files serve 3 key purposes. a) Legal compliance. State and federal governments require certain documentation be included in all employee files. Check with your state and the federal government to ensure you have all of the necessary documentation. b) Justification and defense. Complete personnel files can provide justification for raises and promotions and they offer defense for not giving a raise or promotion. This is helpful in lawsuits and claims. c) Easy access to key employee information. Personnel files should be a quick and easy access point to all documentation relating to the hiring process and employment relationship. This includes evaluations, disciplinary actions, and promotions, among other documents.
     3.         Does everything about an employee go into the personnel file? No. There are certain things that should not be included in a personnel file. One example is medical information. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), all medical records must be kept separate and distinct from the personnel file. In article number three in our series we’ll take an in-depth look at what should not be included, and why, in the personnel file.
     4.         A former employee is demanding to see her personnel file. What do you do? The first thing you need to do is find out if yours state has a law giving former employees access to their files. If your state law gives former employees access to their files, Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Office Management, Records Retention has this advice for you:
“Typically, the individual would be allowed to view the file on the company's premises and to make copies of documents, which often can be at the individual's expense. If your state does not have a law, or the law does not address former employees, then it is up to you whether to give the ex-employee access and under what conditions.”
     5.         What do you do if you receive a demand letter from an attorney for an employee’s personnel file? First, recognize that a demand letter from an attorney is not a subpoena. A demand letter is a request to produce documents. While the demand letter is simply a request, this does not mean you can or should ignore the request. Stephen Holden, lawyer and founder of the Holden Law Group explains the demand letter.
Employers have a wider range of strategic options in responding to demand letters, which can be critically important in reducing the risk of litigation should a suit be filed.
The best way to preserve those options is to act quickly upon receipt of the demand letter. First, document how and when the demand letter was received.
Second, do not take any action and do not speak with anyone, particularly the attorney making the demand, until you have a game plan.
Third, talk to someone knowledgeable about employment litigation who can analyze the situation, provide strategic options and develop a game plan for responding to the demand letter.
     6.         How long must you keep personnel files after employee termination? In general, personnel files need to be kept for three years. This is employee records related to employment, performance appraisals and any disciplinary actions. Gentry Locke Attorneys point out “If the employee has a written employment contact, you must comply with the statute of limitations in your state.” You’ll need to keep some records longer. For example, medical records, government compliance reports and compensation records must be kept for four years, according to Gentry Locke Attorneys.
Maintaining complete and compliant personnel files, like most things in business, is about knowledge and planning. Research the laws in your state and periodically audit your files for compliance. You’ll sleep better at night knowing that you and your files are prepared for anything. 
Sources Cited
Cantieri, Catherine. “What You Need to Kep and How Long.” Reliance Staffing and Recruiting. 27 Jan. 2011. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
Heathfield, Susan M. “Want to Know More about Employee Personnel Files?” Money. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
Holden, Stephen. “Be Careful When Lawyer Demands Employee Records.” The Business Journals. 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
“Organizing Personnel Files: 4 FAQs.” Business Management Daily. 2 June 2015. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
“Recordkeeping Requirements.” Recordkeeping Requirements. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
Myra Golden is a keynote speaker who travels North America looking for great stories to share, and new ways to help her clients deliver the best possible customer experience.
Myra Golden is not an attorney and the content of this article is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality, and is not be used as legal advice.