You can request your personnel file from a former employer by contacting them, often in writing, and demanding access to the file. Employers are legally required to maintain records about your time at work. You generally have a right to review these records.
Your personnel files can be valuable evidence if you have suffered a
- wrongful termination or
- other workplace setback.
What is the best way to request a personnel file?
The best way to access your personnel file from a former employer is to request it in writing. However, different states provide different rights regarding your personnel file. You should have a solid understanding of your rights before making a request. Send your request to the appropriate person or department at your former employer.
Before making the request, you should get the legal advice of a labor attorney at a reputable law firm. There is no federal law governing access to your personnel records. Understanding the applicable state law is important. There may be a detailed process for requesting your personnel records from a former employer. If there is, you must follow it.
Written requests for your personnel file
Generally, you can submit a written request for your personnel file. Sending the request via email works, too.
By making the request in writing, you create a paper trail. You want to be able to prove that the request
- was made and
- was received.
In many states, the request must be in writing.1
Whom to make the request to
You should submit the request to the appropriate person or department. If your former employer had a human resources (HR) department, send it there. If there was no HR department, send the request to either:
- your former supervisor, or
- the person that you think is in charge of employee personnel files.
Employers have a legal duty to respond and comply with these requests. However, they are generally given a reasonable amount of time to respond.
What information does my employer have to keep?
Employers have to keep information about your employment in their personnel files. Different states may vary on what is required. However, your employee personnel file will generally include:
- your job application,
- wage information,
- hours worked, most often in the form of timesheets,
- payroll records,
- vacation time,
- medical leave or sick time,
- information about any leaves of absence that you have taken during your time of employment,
- your contact information, including your address,
- any disciplinary actions taken against you,
- internal memos regarding disciplinary meetings or discussions,
- performance evaluations,
- letters of reference,
- medical records related to any workplace injuries, and
- complaints or recommendations about you from coworkers, supervisors, or customers or clients.
What are my rights to my file?
Generally, you have a right to review your personnel file. State laws often put small limits on that right, though. Those limitations, however, can have a significant impact on your ability to review your file after you have left the company.
Employer violations of these rules are generally reportable to your state’s Department of Labor.
In Colorado, for example, employers have to allow you to inspect and obtain a copy of your personnel file. However, there are limitations:
- former employees only have to be allowed 1 inspection of their files,
- employers can require the inspection to be in the presence of someone at the company,
- you can be charged reasonable copying costs, and
- the inspection has to be at the employer’s office and at a time that is convenient to both you and the employer.2
In Illinois, only employers with 5 or more employees are covered by the law. Former employees only have access to their personnel files for 1 year after termination. Covered employers have to grant at least 2 inspection requests in a calendar year. However, those requests must be made at reasonable intervals.3
Former employees only have a single opportunity to review their records in Minnesota, as well. However, only employers who have 20 or more employees are covered by the law, there.4
Massachusetts state law lays out the timeline for complying with the request. There, you have a right to review your personnel file within 5 business days of submitting a request. You can do this up to 2 times in a calendar year. Your employer also has to notify you within 10 days of any negative information being added to your file.5
Why is it important to access it?
If you have suffered an adverse employment action, your personnel file can have valuable information in it. That information can be used as evidence for a variety of legal claims, including for:
- wrongful termination of employment,
- workplace harassment,
- retaliation, and
- wage and hour violations.
When to request your personnel files
Current and former employees should strongly consider reviewing their personnel file after an adverse employment action. This includes when they have been:
- laid off,
- transferred, or
- denied a promotion or additional compensation.
There may be evidence in the personnel file that this workplace setback was improper.
For example: Barry gets laid off. He requests his personnel file. In it, he finds a memo about the decision to let him go. A driving factor in his discharge were the workplace injuries that he suffered. His termination may be retaliation for filing for workers’ compensation.
What is the law in California?
California state law is friendlier to workers and former employees than most other states. Employers must give employees access to their records in lots of circumstances.
Employers must keep all employee personnel records for at least 3 years after the worker’s termination.6 These records must include those related to:
- your performance, and
- any workplace grievance about you.7
Former employees are entitled to a copy of their personnel records. Employers have to comply with at least 1 request per year.8 The copy of your file can be made available to you or to your authorized representative:
- at the location where the records are kept,
- somewhere else, if both you and your employer agree in writing to that location, or
- via mail, if you pay for the actual postal expenses.9
If you were terminated for harassment or a violation of law, your previous employer may provide the records at a location other than the workplace.10
Current employees can review the record where they report to work.11
How to request your personnel files
You can make a request to inspect these records or to ask for a copy of them. The request has to be in writing.12
Your former employer must make the records available within 30 calendar days of receiving the request, unless other arrangements are mutually agreed to.13 The inspection has to happen at a reasonable time of day.14
If you request a copy of the files, you may be charged with the actual costs of copying them.15 The copy can be redacted by the employer, removing all names of non-supervisory employees.16
Some employment records do not have to be provided. Such information includes:
- records related to an ongoing criminal investigation,
- letters of reference,
- records obtained prior to your employment,
- reports prepared by examination committee members who would be identifiable in the record, and
- ratings obtained in connection with a promotional examination.17
Public employees and those subject to a collective bargaining agreement may have different rules.
When your employer does not provide your personnel files
If your former employer fails to satisfy its legal obligations under state law, you or the California Labor Commissioner from the Department of Industrial Relations can recover a $750 penalty.18 You can also file a lawsuit and get:
- injunctive relief in the form of a court order to comply with your employee rights,
- costs of filing the lawsuit, and
- attorneys’ fees.19
However, your rights to review or obtain your personnel file are put on hold if you file a lawsuit against your former employer where the records can be relevant.20 They must be produced through the discovery process, instead.
For more information, refer to the following:
- Personnel Files and Records – Overview of state law by the California Department of Industrial Relations.
- Rights in the Workplace: Access to Personnel Files – Article in Public Affairs Quarterly.
- The Confidentiality of Personnel Records: A Legal and Ethical View – Article in Lab. Law Journal.
- Employee and government access to personnel files: rights and requirements – Article in Employee Relations Law Journal.
- Confidentiality of Personnel Files in the Private Sector – Article in U.C. Davis Law Review.
- See, e.g., California Labor Code 1198.5 LAB.
- CRS 8-2-129.
- 820 ILCS 40/1 et seq. (Illinois Personnel Record Review Act).
- Minnesota Statute Annotated 181.960 et seq.
- Mass. Gen. Laws Chapter 149, Section 52C.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(c)(1) LAB.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(a) LAB.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(d) LAB.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(c)(3)(A) LAB.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(c)(3)(B) LAB.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(c)(2) LAB.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(b) LAB.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(b)(1) LAB.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(g) LAB.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(h) LAB.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(k) LAB.
- California Labor Code 1198.5(l) LAB
- California Labor Code 1198.5(n) LAB.