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Top 5 Most Important Documents in Your Employee Personnel Files

Top Five Personnel Files

Personnel files are your first line of defense when it comes to litigation. The information collected and documented in the personnel file are the very first documents that your attorney will review when an employee files a lawsuit. The documents in your personnel file will be the source of information to deal with inquiries and investigations from the state and federal government. Personnel files are the place you should turn to when dealing with claims for unemployment benefits and workers compensation claims.

This facet of Human Resources life raises many questions. What should I keep in my personnel files? Who should have access to personnel files? Does any part of the personnel file have to be confidential? Where should I keep my personnel files? The answers to these questions may prevent or mitigate any litigation against your company, so let’s talk some basics here.

Who Should Have Access to Your Personnel Files?

Access to personnel files should be limited to management employees and/or human resources personnel. The personnel files should be maintained in a secure location to prevent identify theft. Securing the personnel files also prevents co-workers from looking through files for confidential private information of their co-workers. The best way to secure personnel files is either under a lock and key system or through a password encrypted electronic file.

Does Any Part of the Personnel File Have to be Confidential?

As you may have guessed from the previous discussion the answer is enthusiastically “Yes!” You need to keep your personnel files confidential from individuals that do not need to know that information to protect your employees from invasions of their privacy. We recommend that you protect personal identifiers by keeping the general personnel file secure, but that’s not the end of the story. We also recommend that you keep medical information in a separate even more secure file.

In the course of an employee’s employment, it may become necessary to acquire medical information about the employee. You should always comply with HIPAA laws and ask for an authorization from the employee before seeking medical records. Once you have the medical records you need to keep them in a file separate from the general personnel file.

Medical records need to be accorded an extra level of privacy. Most medical records are really only tangentially related to employment purposes. The law allows an employer to request medical information, but only to the extent it relevant to a business purpose. The business purpose that justifies receiving those records is the guidepost for who should have access to those records.

An employee’s medical condition and records should be kept on a “need to know basis.” It is imperative that your personnel files do not contain medical records that can be accessed by people that do not need to know. It is equally imperative that you train the people who do need to know to keep the confidentiality of those records in the workplace. Your personnel file, and the people who handle it, should never be the source of gossip about an employee’s medical condition.

If you’ve got more questions about personnel files, then you’re in luck. We’re giving a presentation on it called “Top 5 Most Important Documents in Your Employee Personnel Files.” We hope to see you at the virtual presentation!

For more information on the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Top Five series, visit the Business Resources page. While there, be sure to register for the next Top Five series.

Hugh Cain, Brent Hinders & Eric Updegraff

Hugh Cain is a shareholder attorney at Hopkins & Huebner, P.C. A graduate of the University of Washington School of Law, he has practiced in Iowa's state and federal courts for over 35 years. Brent Hinders has been practicing law in Iowa for over a decade. A graduate of Simpson College and Drake University Law School, Brent now practices in the areas of labor, employment, criminal, municipal and government law. Eric Updegraff has practiced law in Iowa for 15 years. A graduate of Simpson College and the University of Iowa College of Law, Eric primarily practices in employment law, human resources, workers' compensation, municipal and government law.