Info You Can Use: Correct Organization Of Personnel Files

Hat tip to Emily Chan at Non Profit Law blog for sharing a link to a Blue Avocado piece on how personnel files should be maintained. More specifically, what information should not be stored in a personnel file, if retained at all, and what should be kept in separate files.

Some of the prohibitions made sense given the need to maintain privacy of medical records and the fact that some documents must be released to federal inspection and it is inappropriate to provide access to the details of an entire employment history. It makes sense that nothing should be placed in the file that employees aren’t aware of.

There are some other factors I don’t know I would have ever considered when setting up a system of personnel records.

Following are the most important items to exclude:

* Any writing regarding the employee’s performance that the employee has not seen should not be in the file. For example, while the performance evaluation that was presented to the employee should be in there, a complaint memo from a department manager about an error the employee made that was never shown to the employee should not.

* Working notes or logs that a supervisor has kept for her own benefit, usually to assist in the drafting of a performance evaluation. The notes should be destroyed after documenting anything of importance in the annual performance evaluation.

* Any medical information (including drug testing information) about the employee from any source should never be in the employee’s personnel file, but rather in a separate, more restricted confidential medical file. This separate medical file could also include any medical-related information such as documents related to Workers’ Compensation, FMLA and ADA.

* Complaints or investigation reports (harassment, discrimination, ethics, licensing etc.). Any complaint about an employee that is subject to an investigation should not be in the employee’s personnel file, but in a separate complaint file. For example, if an employee is accused of sexual harassment, the only thing that should be lodged in the personnel file is any disciplinary action taken against the employee or a substantiated report of wrongdoing — but not the original complaint or investigation notes.

* These items also should not be kept in a personnel file, but in separate, confidential files:
o Hiring Documents, such as letters of reference, background investigation reports, or I-9s
o EEO Statistical Information for the EEO-1 Report
o Payroll records

In short, to manage all of this personnel information we suggest four sets of files:

1. A personnel file for each employee
2. A separate medical file for each employee
3. One folder that has Forms I-9 for all employees
4. A file (or set of files) for all employee payroll records

Ellen Aldridge, who wrote the Blue Avocado piece, also provides a downloadable check list of items to include. She follows the material cited above with information about what things employees can add to their files, how long you need to keep information, how to store the files and suggested policies and protocol for accessing and reviewing files.

The one thing I questioned, (literally-I ask about it in the comments section of the article), is the suggestion that notes a supervisor has been keeping to base a performance evaluation on be destroyed. The supervisor might be documenting incidents of absence, mishandling of cash or even episodes when customers praised an employee to a supervisor or were witnessed using exceptional judgment and initiative. Wouldn’t you want to retain this evidence if the employee challenged a poor evaluation or to defend the employee against potential layoffs?

There hasn’t been a response to my comment as of publication time. Perhaps the the advice will be to formally include these records as part of the evaluation and the destruction advice refers to informal handwritten notes versus a spreadsheet the supervisor has been maintaining.

If anyone has insight or wants to share their own best practices, I would be interested to learn the answers. My guess is that a modified version of these practices should be applied to volunteer records as well.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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