I have the word right in quotes because it so happens that you have at best limited right to see and/or have copies of the information in your personnel file while you are still employed–and even less right after that. (The state where you live and work has some effect on this.) I just read a post in the blog run by Nick Corcodillos of Ask The Headhunter that highlights this situation and puts it pretty bluntly. It reinforces a piece of advice I have given to clients for years, which I will get to in a moment. In short, though, it’s up to you to find out what your “rights” are and to take as much advantage of them as the law allows.
In his blog post, Surprise: Guess who owns your personnel file, Corcodillos mentions that he consulted an attorney he knows, Lawrence Barty. Barty offered some general information that I believe all employees should be aware of. Among other things, he commented that employees often believe they own their personnel file, when in fact, it’s the company’s file on them as an employee. Companies are seldom required to give employees direct access to the file, although some of them apparently do permit that in certain circumstances.
As Barty put it in this quote from the blog post, “without a State law giving the employee a right to see the file, the employee is at the mercy of the employer. Only about a third of the States have any laws concerning the right to view or copy employment files….In those States that do have laws permitting employees to see their files, the conditions vary widely.”
Without direct access to the personnel file itself (which, as noted, can be highly problematic), you have one option that relates to what I said at the beginning about advice I always offer. I strongly recommend keeping a log of what you’ve accomplished in your job during the time you’ve been there, ideally with backup documentation that verifies your contributions and helps offset negative information, if any. If your employer conducts periodic performance reviews, you are typically given a copy of the review. Keep that copy! Equally important, keep it in a safe place off-site, not at work.
If you receive any email messages or other communications that pertain to your work–good or bad–keep copies of them off-site as well. You will need to be careful about those, however; if they contain information about company business that would be considered confidential/proprietary, you might need to block out those portions before you let anyone outside the company see the material.
Along these same lines, I recommend having two copies of the materials and storing the copies in separate locations. For example, one copy might be in your records at home while another might be in a safe deposit box (if it has room) or other secure location that you could easily gain access to if needed. In the hopefully unlikely event of a catastrophe at home (such as a fire or major earthquake), you might need that backup copy.
Bottom line: Don’t depend on anyone else to provide you with information you should have and really want access to. Check with a lawyer on anything you’re not sure about, but don’t just let this slide. Trying to get the information after-the-fact can be a royal pain!