Posted by on July 21, 2010

Good recordkeeping is a cornerstone of good business, and most business managers know that.  And, because Human Resource Management (formerly known as Personnel, back when employees were people, not mere human resources) is one of the areas of management that poses the most challenges and some of the greatest risks, most managers keep good personnel records.

Good Personnel Records

Good personnel records start before hiring, and track the employer/employee (or contractor) relationship to its termination and beyond.  A thorough personnel file will document:

  • When and why the employee was hired;
  • When and why the employee was promoted (or demoted or transferred);
  • When the employee was reviewed for performance, who did it, and the outcome;
  • When the employee was disciplined (and whether the problem that led to the discipline was resolved);
  • Any special requests the employee made, from routine vacation, sick days, or exception time, to medical leave, FMLA leave, leaves of absence, etc.; and
  • When an employee was terminated, why, and on what terms (Free to reapply?  References allowed?)

A thorough record is important for several reasons.  Among these is the fact the managers and supervisors may change over the life of the business, and these records allow new managers to come up-to-speed on employees and their performance issues, work and promition histories, and so forth.  Institutional memory should never rely entirely on personal memory.

Good Personal Records

When you consider why your boss is keeping these records, you will realize why it could be very useful for you to keep your own records.  Why do you suppose that is?  Part of the purpose is general recordkeeping, that is, the personnel side of accounting:  How much time have you taken off?  Have you used any special leave?  Did you receive and sign for an employee handbook?

Generally, however, the most important legal reason for keeping this file is to build a case to support a termination, or to defend any allegations you might make of harassment, discrimination, or other wrongful termination.  If any of these situations should arise, it is VERY helpful to have copies of these things!

When an employee has extensive documentation of problems at work, employers sometimes insinuate that the employee was “looking for trouble.”  However, by that same logic, an employee could argue that an employer who keeps a personnel file was “gunning for you” from the beginning.

Your right to access your employment records or personnel file will vary from state to state, and company to company.  Thus, keeping your own copy of your personnel file – at least the parts that you are aware of – is just good recordkeeping, as you may need that information later, and your work file may be incomplete, lost in an office move, etc.  Sure, you don’t have huge file storage space for keeping these things.  You don’t need it.  Disk space is very inexpensive these days, and a scanned copy of these documents is just as good as the original.  Your recordkeeping should be as thorough as your employer’s.  You should save a copy of:

  • Job postings / classified ads you responded to;
  • Resumes you submitted;
  • Contracts, offer letters, employment agreements, waivers, etc.;
  • Employee handbooks;
  • Policy memos, or other policy handouts;
  • Evaluations or performance improvement plans (especially documents showing you have satisfied the requirements of the plan);
  • ALL disciplinary documents and correspondence;
  • All official correspondence to and from the company (this includes e-mail you send and receive regarding policy, personnel issues such as vacation requests, etc., but does NOT include internal correspondence about business operations, clients, etc.);
  • Time sheets, if you keep time manually;
  • Pay stubs or payment advice (especially if it includes vacation balances, pension contributions, etc.);
  • Grievances, complaints, suggestions, or proposals (for contractors);
  • Incident or accident reports, doctors’ notes, excused absences, etc.; and
  • Anything you sign (simply ask for a copy for your files if one isn’t handed to you).

If you don’t know your company’s policy on access to your personnel file, and it’s not in the company policy handbook, you should feel free to ask.

In addition to having your own important defensive information if you should find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being harassed or forced out, you may find that these records also provide a lot of valuable life planning information:  How is your pension growing?  When were you last promoted?  When was your last raise?  Have you been compensated for all of your performance objectives?  These are just a few examples of the information that’s in your file – and should be in YOUR file.

Coming soon:  Running Your Life Like a Business.


  1. AttyRick
    November 16, 2010

    Leave a Reply

    Fellow employment lawyer Thomas Crane (San Antonio, TX) shared this example of cases where the documentation isn’t the problem, agency support and cooperation is:

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