Recently, the National Law Journal published an alarmist article that claims that: "A growing number of employees are requesting access to their personnel files, which has employers smelling legal trouble and their attorneys sounding warnings."
Sounds good in theory, but where is the proof of that? A survey? A number showing increased lawsuits? The article does not answer that question.
A terrific college professor of time, Kathleen Hall Jamieson once taught me that when the media starts citing "trends" or "growing numbers" without proof, the reader ought to be skeptical about it. Here, there is no proof — other than the author’s assertions — that there is a growing number. Quoting an attorney or two to create a trend does not inherently make it so. (Another media critic, Jack Shafer of Slate magazine, writes on similar "trend" stories such as this.)
Here in Connecticut, access to personnel files has been guaranteed — in one shape or another — for nearly 30 years. Personnel files are defined quite broadly in Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 31-128a:
(5) "Personnel file" means papers, documents and reports, including electronic mail and facsimiles, pertaining to a particular employee that are used or have been used by an employer to determine such employee’s eligibility for employment, promotion, additional compensation, transfer, termination, disciplinary or other adverse personnel action including employee evaluations or reports relating to such employee’s character, credit and work habits. "Personnel file" does not mean stock option or management bonus plan records, medical records, letters of reference or recommendations from third parties including former employers, materials that are used by the employer to plan for future operations, information contained in separately maintained security files, test information, the disclosure of which would invalidate the test, or documents which are being developed or prepared for use in civil, criminal or grievance procedures;
Given this broad definition (and the limited exceptions also present), employers in Connecticut no doubt need to be worried about whether their personnel files are up-to-date, particularly with the advent of e-mail and technology. But this is not a new worry; with clear policies and procedures in place, an employer can reduce their risk of exposure. Nor have we seen an onslaught of litigation regarding this topic either.
The rest of the NLJ article does provide some useful tips to attorneys and companies about personnel files; but whether this is a "growing trend" or just a constant concern is a different question.