Human Resources News & Insights

When an employee walks in and says, ‘I want to see my personnel folder’

Do you have to comply? When can you say “no”? Can you reveal some of the contents while denying access to other parts?


The problem with coming up with answers is that there’s little or no federal law governing an employee’s files. Most of the rules about files come under state law. 

In general, though, you’re on safe ground if you follow these practices: 

If an employee wants to see the entire file: Review the file first and determine whether there’s anything in the there that might involve someone else’s privacy or confidentiality. In most states, you can remove all such documents before granting the employee access to the file. One example of the type of document that would be removed: a reference letter from a third party who assumed the reference was being given confidentially.

Once you remove all confidential documents, you can allow the employee to inspect the file with you or someone from HR present during the inspection. Do not allow the employee to access the file alone or take the file off the premises. 

If an employee wants copies of documents in the file: Again, after you’ve determined what can be accessed without violating confidentiality, ask the employee for a list of documents to be copied, and then make the copies yourself. Do not allow the employee to make the copies.

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    What if a former employee calls and wants to come in and look at their personnel file?

  • Tom B.

    In Illinois, such requests are regulated by the Illinois Personnel Records Review Act.

    Some considerations not mentioned: Get the request in writing to see or copy the file. In Illinois, the law permits charging a reasonable per page copy price. That requirement will inhibit capricious and/or frequent requests.

  • I would follow the same procedures as outlined for an active employee, adding the requirement that an appointment to see the file would be required. Also, I would charge a nominal fee for the copies ($.20 a page, probably) and not make it the day they come in to view the file. That gives you some leeway as to “timing”. If there appears to be something in the file you are not comfortable with them viewing, ask for legal opinion before even letting them see the file.

  • Jen

    It is my understanding that an employee or former employee may have access to any document with their signature, again, with HR present.

  • Tom B.

    In Illinois we have The Personnel Records Review Act (820 ILCS 40/0.01) (from Ch. 48, par. 2000)
    There a number of records that can be withheld from an employee, like letters of reference for the employee, test documents (thoiugh the employee can see his score), and “Investigatory or security records maintained by an employer to investigate criminal conduct by an employee or other activity by the employee which could reasonably be expected to harm the employer’s property, operations, or business or could by the employee’s activity cause the employer financial liability, unless and until the employer takes adverse personnel action based on information in such records”.

    There is more that can be excluded, like “Materials relating to the employer’s staff planning”, but require more explanation than I’ve written here. Above all else, Make the employee request in writing, and sign for everything he/she gets. I make a duplicate set of documents for our records, so we know what the employee received or not.

  • Laws vary from state to state regarding p files. In Iowa the law refers to the employee not former employee.

  • Beth

    I live in Idaho, and just recently terminated an employee who came in to my office without an appointment, and demanded to have a copy of the file.

    I copied all of the personal documents, certifications, transcripts, and degrees, but did not include performance reviews, past write ups or termination paperwork. I feel these are company owned documents. Is this legal to do? She was very escalated and said she would get a lawyer. Will I have to give a copy of these to a lawyer?

  • Tom B.

    Beth – I did a little searching, and found a page from Idaho State University that spells out how they handle personnel records examination, employee requests for copies and more

    They cite Idaho Code, which may help you confirm that it applies to your organization. (My guess; start copying records)

  • JR

    This code is, pertaining specifically public entities like- the university, I don’t believe it applies to private employers

  • Ernie

    I have a friend in Oklahoma who feels she was unjustly written up today and threadened with being fired if she refused to sign the document. She requested a photo copy of the document and was refused. Refused a copy, this doen’t sound right.