Q. My manager has just given me a pretty bad review, and has said it will be put into my personnel file. I’d like to know what’s in my file already. I asked Human Resources to see it and they seem to be stalling. Am I allowed to see this information?
A: The concept of a “permanent record” has worried students forever and the employee version can be found in the personnel file. Massachusetts has a personnel records law that gives you the right to see what is in your personnel file. I consulted Margaret Paget, partner in the Litigation Department of Sherin and Lodgen LLP and co-chair of the firm's Employment Law Group in Boston who explained that most Massachusetts employers are required by law to maintain a personnel record for every employee.
According to Attorney Paget, These files must contain: “all employee performance evaluations, including but not limited to, employee evaluation documents; written warnings of substandard performance; lists of probationary periods; waivers signed by the employee; copies of dated termination notices; and any other documents relating to disciplinary action regarding the employee.” The statute does not require employers with less than 20 employees to include all of this information in a personnel record, so depending on the size of your employer, you may or may not find all that you seek in your personnel record.
You are entitled to review your personnel record when you receive notice that your employer has added information, Attorney Paget continues, “that is, has been used or may be used, to negatively affect [your] qualification for employment, promotion, transfer, additional compensation or the possibility that [you] will be subject to disciplinary action.” In addition, you have the right to review and receive a copy of your personnel record up to twice each calendar year. Your employer has up to five business days following a written employee request to provide that to you, so if you have not yet requested your personnel record in writing, you will need to do so to see a copy.
Having a conversation with your manager about the contents of the negative review, and looking for ways to address the issues is in your best interest as an employee. Ask for the opportunity to work on a developmental action plan to show improvement, and clear up any misunderstandings which may be part of the negative review. Attorney Paget also explains that if you disagree with information in your personnel record, you may request that it be removed or corrected. If your employer does not agree, you may submit a written statement explaining your position as it relates to the information you wish to correct. By law, that statement will become part of your permanent personnel record and must be included when the related information is transmitted to a third party. There are also procedures for an employee to seek removal of information the employer knew or should have known to be false which would be a reasonable expectation of any employer.
Your goal as an employee is to prevent anything from going this far, and keeping lines of verbal communication open before a manager feels the need for negative documentation.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
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