Personnel Files:

Personnel files are not a sign of encroaching bureaucracy. Even very small organizations should have them. Beyond providing a centralized, convenient place to store all the records relevant to each employee, they serve as documentation supporting your personnel decisions: job placement, promotion, training, pay raises, probation, firing, layoff and references to future employers.

For example, reports from performance evaluations, write-ups of previous disciplinary actions, or resumes detailing past job experience can be used to show a rational, non-discriminatory process for putting someone on probation, or promoting one person instead of another.

Personnel files can also be the source of data for research on the effectiveness of your personnel systems. How is your affirmative action plan progressing? In what areas do you experience the highest turnover and why? Are the employees actually using the benefits provided?

Legal Issues

The legal issues surrounding personnel files concern access of employees to their own files and privacy of the contents from others' access.

Traditionally the law regards personnel records as the property of the employer. Now the Privacy of Information Act allows federal employees access totheir records and guarantees against their misuse. A lot of private sector businesses have voluntarily followed the federal government's example.

State laws vary widely. Check with your state Department of Labor. Some place no restrictions of any kind on the employer. Some merely require the employer to provide certain basic information upon request, such as hours worked, gross pay received, pay rates, date of employment. On the other hand, some states, taking a more progressive position on employee rights, mandate free access and limit the employer both in the type of information kept and uses it can be put to.

There is a saying, "Closed files breed litigation." If people can't get access to the records, it's easy for them to suspect there is something false or unfairly damaging being hidden from them. Some organizations, recognizing this possibility, have their workers read and sign every piece of information that goes into the files. Others maintain parallel files. For example, one set of records containing personal information would be open to the employee and the administrator of the benefits plan. Another set for performance information (evaluations, disciplinary action) would be open to the employee, supervisor and the management or workers' representatives on a need4o-know basis.

People deserve to have their medical histories, family situations and performance problems kept private from their co-workers if they wish. Personnel files should be maintained in a secure place under the responsibility of one person, who should give them out only to those designated by your organization's policy.

An Example of Organizational Policy on Access to Personnel Files

"To ensure the right to privacy, the co-op grants each employee access to her/his own file and limits others' access to the employee's supervisor, General Manager, payroll bookkeeper, and the Grievance Committee if the employee is involved in a grievance. The payroll bookkeeper is responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of all personnel files. S/he may establish procedures for how long files may be out of her/his custody, where on the premises they can be taken, and conditions under which copies can be made."

Contents of a Typical Personnel File

Personal Information:

  • Name, current address, phone (leave room for updates).
  • Who to notify in case of emergency.
  • Any vital medical information in the event of on-the-job illness or injury.
  • Date of birth (if needed for benefits plan).
  • Marital status and dependents (if needed for benefits plan).
  • W-4 and 1-9 (IRS) data.

This personal information usually goes on a standard form, often with the employment history.

Application and/or resume and any reference letters or other material submitted with the application: These document a person's qualifications for her/his current position and future positions within the co-op.

If you have solicited references, either letters or notes from phone conversations with previous employers, you need to consider provisions for confidentiality. Former employers are liable for their statements. If one gives a negative reference, but you hire the employee anyway, do you want her/him to read what the former employer has said?

Employment history (within the co-op):

  • Titles and dates of each position held.
  • Changes in status: part-time, full-time, temporary.
  • Wage or salary when hired.
  • Raises, dates or raises, and requests for raises.
  • The basis for each pay decision: promotion, cost of living, performance evaluation, seniority, bonus, disciplinary action.

Keep this information on each employee in case you ever need documentation of unbiased promotion and pay decisions.

Training records: for consideration of future promotions or job transfers.

  • Inside training received (if not implied in the positions held).
  • Applications for funding for training outside the co-op.
  • Outside classes, workshops, seminars, courses attended and results obtained -- grades, certificate, license, report.

Performance evaluatlons:

  • The person's self-evaluation.
  • The immediate supervisor's appraisal.
  • Composite or edited compilation of co-workers' ratings and comments.
  • Report summarizing the results of the evaluation, goals for future reviews and actions taken, if any, e.g., raises, promotions, training, probation.

Disciplinary action records: Written warnings, terms of probations, notices and reports of suspension and termination. This documentation is essential if an employee should ever legally contest a firing or other disciplinary action.

Insurance records:

  • If you offer a choice of insurance plans, which plan enrolled, and dates of joining, switching, dropping.
  • Dependents added or dropped.
  • Co-payments, whether by cash or payroll deduction.
  • Beneficiary designated for life insurance plans.
  • Copy of the individual insurance policies.

Health and injury records:

  • Reports of job-related injuries and illnesses.
  • Workers' compensation claims filed, and outcome of claims.

You could keep copies of injury reports for all staff in one file, for an overview of patterns of injury and illness.

Attendance records: It's important to keep track of absences, whether for illness, leave of absence or regularly scheduled vacation. Documentation of excused and unexcused absences is essential for disciplinary action.

Your payroll timesheets can do double duty as attendance records. You need to put copies of them in the personnel files only when documentation of attendance problems is needed.


  • Grievances filed by the employee.
  • Grievances filed against her/him (as a supervisor) or otherwise closely involving her/him.
  • Reports on final determination of grievances.

Termination Checklist

Employee ___________________________
Department _________________________
Title ______________________________
Status (full/part time, temp) ______
Date Hired _________________________
Last Day of Work ___________________
Pay Rate ___________________________
Forwarding Address: ________________
Phone: _____________________________
Returned to General Manager:
___Key ___Apron ___Other
Money owed:
______Insurance Copayment
______Dependent Insurance
______Other _____________
Medical Insurance Plan_______________
cancelled by ____ for (date) ________
Currrent Workers Comp claims?
Vacation Balance ____________________
Sick Pay Balance ____________________
Comp Time Balance ___________________
__Voluntary resignation,
    date of notice given ____
__Disciplinary action -- misconduct
__Unsatisfactory work performance
__Layoff, position terminated
__Injury, unable to perform job
Exit interview conducted? __ By whom? ____
Date _______
Notes attached? _______
___ yes, left in good standing
___ no
___ with reservations


Termination: When an employee leaves the co-op, there are a lot of details to be settled. A checklist helps make sure you've covered them all.

It is important to document the reasons for and conditions of a person's leaving, because you may be asked by a prospective employer for a reference, or the person may reapply to the co-op in the future. The personnel files should provide you with clear answers to the questions, "Why did s/he leave?" and "Would you rehire?"

However, keep in mind that you, as the former employer, could be held liable for saying something that prevented the person from getting the job. Many employers refuse to give out any information for this reason. Ask for assurance that the information you give will be kept confidential. If you have reason to doubt the discretion of the prospective employer, play it safe and stick to the dates of employement, job titles, salary. You don't owe the prospective employer anything. Because of the legal sensitive nature of references, the task of giving them out should be delegated to one person who understands the need for judgment and discretion.

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