Can I review my HR file?

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Q: Can I review my HR file, as an employee?  Can I take a copy? 

A: Most employers maintain a file of information on each employee within the company.  Often included in this file are an employee’s employment application, a resume (if one has been submitted), tax forms and performance-related documents.  In Massachusetts, most current and former employees are guaranteed access to personnel records under the Massachusetts Personnel Records Act.  The Act requires an employee to submit a written request to an employer.  The requesting employee must be allowed to review this file within five business days during normal business hours.  An employee may also request a copy of the file (or a portion of the file) and the copies must be provided within five business days from the date of the request.   An employee may also request that information maintained in their personnel file be removed or corrected.  If an employee feels that there is information in their file which is incorrect then the employee has the right to put a statement or memo in their file which disputes or clarifies the information contained in the file.  By law, this statement is now required to be part of the employee’s personnel record.

You can certainly request that your employer sign a statement verifying that you there are no documents being withheld from your file.  However, I would caution you.  And truthfully, I would counsel an employer not to sign such a statement for several reasons.  First, there are some issues around the interpretation of what exactly is a personnel record.  Yes, most likely it includes the official file that is maintained by the employer in the Human Resources office.  However, the definition is even broader than most of us would assume.  The law defines a personnel record as any “record kept by an employer that identifies the employee, to the extent that the record is used or has been used, or may affect or be used relative to that employee’s qualifications for employment, promotion, transfer, additional compensation or disciplinary action.”  With such a broad definition, many professionals interpret this to mean that a personnel record may very well include the records or documents that are not included in the official file, but may be perhaps sitting in a manager’s desk.  This could include a manager’s notes about a recent performance-related discussion.  Additionally, the law also states that “a personnel record shall be maintained in typewritten or printed form or maybe handwritten in indelible ink.”  There also maybe electronic records, which contain information about you, an employee.  This HRIS (Human Resources Information System) may also contain information about benefits elections.

Also, your request may signal to an employer that you are preparing to file some type of employment-related claim against them.  I think it is wiser to simply submit a written request asking for a copy of your personnel records.  I would encourage you to be specific – requesting a copy of the contents of your personnel file, any documents that your manager(s) or others may have related to your employment and a copy of print out of any computerized files.  This broad definition should cover all of the documents or files regarding your employment.

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.