Can I get a copy of my employee file?

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Q:  My company is re-organizing and everyone is nervous.  I would like a copy of my HR file.  Am I allowed to make a copy of it?  I would like to know what is in there as my previous supervisor was a bit rigid.  Are there laws which apply to this request?

A:  You are smart to think about this now, especially if there is a focus on re-organizing now and in the near future.  State laws vary on accessing employment records, so I will assume that you are in Massachusetts.

There is a state law which outlines an employer’s obligations with respect to employee access of personnel records.  The law, the Personnel Record Law, requires employers to provide access to the employee’s personnel records, upon written request.  Your employer must comply with your written request within five business days.  Although employers are not required to provide a free copy, employers must provide a copy or allow access to the file.  An employer can charge an employee for the copies.

The definition of what constitutes an employee personnel record is defined by the law as well.  The law defines this as “any record kept by an employer that identifies an employee, to the extent that the record is used or has used, or may affect or be used relative to the employee’s qualifications for employment, promotion, transfer, additional compensation or disciplinary action.”  Although there are different interpretations, this would likely include a file kept in a supervisor’s desk and/or an electronic file.

If you find information that you feel is inaccurate, you may request that the information be removed or corrected.  However, your employer may disagree.  If your employer refuses your request, you may add a document which discusses your position.  As an example, if you feel that your former supervisor provided a harsh performance evaluation or written warning, you may submit a document which summarizes your position.  Your employer is required to retain your statement in your file, as long as the original employer document, such as a performance evaluation or written warning, remains in your file.

Additionally, as of 2010, employers are also required to notify an employee if anything of negative nature is placed in the employee’s personnel record.  The employer has to notify an employee within 10 days of the document being placed in the employee’s file.  For example, if your former supervisor summarized performance concerns and your employer included it in your file, you would need to be notified of this information.  This is why many employers now have an employee sign a written warning, or similar document.

It is a wise to ask for this information now.  While former employees also have the same rights regarding access, I would argue that it may be more difficult to do as a former employee.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.