Personnel Files: Organized and updated information is critical
(from Maine Townsman, April 2001)
by Antoinette Mancusi, Technical Advisor, Legal Services, MMA

The importance of keeping updated and organized personnel records cannot be overstated. There are several reasons why municipal employers should take the time to organize their personnel records. First, there are a host of federal and state laws including "record retention rules" promulgated by the Maine State Archives, which establish minimum "retention periods" for municipal records which include personnel records. Therefore the first reason personnel records should be properly maintained is a legal one—many records are subject to mandated retention periods. (Please refer to the chart at the end of this article for a summary of municipal personnel record retention requirements. Municipalities can access the entire set of Municipal Record Retention Rules on line at their website: http://www.state.me.us/sos/arc/recmgmt/localgov/localhom.htm.)

Second, accurate and updated personnel "documentation" is imperative in a business environment, which grows more litigious every year. Employers are being sued at ever increasing rates and as a result they require "documentation" (a.k.a. evidence) of the appropriateness of their personnel actions in order to fend off allegations of improper employment practices including bogus claims of discrimination. As a result, having accurate, updated and organized employee records makes good business sense. 

Third, state law (26 M.R.S.A. § 631) provides employees with access to their personnel records (including former employees and duly authorized representatives). However, a written request for such information must be submitted to the employer. File review and copying must take place at the location where the personnel files are maintained, during normal office hours unless, at the employer's discretion, a more convenient time and location for the employee are arranged. If there is a cost for copying the material the employer can charge the person requesting the copy. 

State law (26 M.R.S.A. § 630) also provides that an employer, upon written request of a terminated employee, must provide that employee the written reasons for the termination of that person's employment within 15 days of receiving such a request. As a result, municipal employers should have updated files, planning on the eventuality that an employee will someday request to see his or her personnel file or request other information from their file, such as reasons for termination.

Lastly, under Maine's "Right to Know" Law, officially the "Freedom of Access Act" (1 M.R.S.A. §§ 401-410), many items contained in municipal personnel records are open to the public unless confidentiality provisions of 30-A M.R.S.A. § 2702 protect them. (See section on "Confidentiality" below). For example, records of every decision involving the dismissal or refusal to renew the contract of any public official, employee or appointee is an open document (1 M.R.S.A. § 407). Again, because of the public's access, municipalities should plan for such requests for information by having updated and organized files. 

The contents of personnel files. Municipal personnel files and their components will necessarily differ from municipality to municipality depending on the size of the work force and inherent differences in administration styles. Somewhere between bare bones and overly inclusive approaches exists a happy medium to personnel file creation that municipalities should individually explore. 

Regardless of the municipality's approach to file creation, it is important to make certain that any personnel document, which will necessarily be placed in the file, is worthy of creation. Because any municipal document created cannot be destroyed (or at least must be retained/destroyed according to record retention rules), municipal officials, personnel directors, etc. creating documents must do so with the awareness that any such document will necessarily be "housed" in the employee's file for years to come. 

Make sure you really want the document and that it is drafted in a manner that will not embarrass the municipality down the road or provide evidence of inappropriate employer conduct. If for example you are going to document a disciplinary issue, be certain to keep the documentation succinct and drafted in an objective tone, using appropriate language. Remember, any document you create and file in a personnel file may very well be discoverable during the course of litigation. As a result, for employee actions leading to discipline or especially termination, it is a very good idea to have private counsel review the language used in such documents prior to having the documents placed in an employee's file. 

Beyond disciplinary records, there are obviously many other records in a typical personnel file. The following is a chart (a relatively extensive one—although by no means complete) developed for municipalities using information contained in "What's In A Personnel File? (And What Should Not Be)" by William H. Truesdell, of The Management Advantage, Inc. The documents have been categorized into 6 general subject areas. These are "suggested" categories and municipalities should select categories that work for them. 

Professional municipal personnel directors have recommended using "six-section" folders with top clasps that can be purchased at most office supply stores in order to store documents in an organized fashion. For those of you alarmed by the extensive nature of the following list—remember, this is intentionally extensive and it is anticipated that most municipalities' files will probably not contain all the listed items:

SAMPLE PERSONNEL FILE CONTENTS

1. Basic Employment Data Job posting/announcement
Job description
Employee's original employment application
Employment interview report form
Verification of education, employment, etc.
Rejection letter
Employment offer letter
Employment agency agreement (if hired through an agency)
Employee handbook or personnel policy(s) acknowledgment form showing receipt of handbook or personnel policy(s)
Checklist from new employee orientation showing subjects covered
Veterans/Disabled self-identification form
Security clearance status
Employee separation documents (e.g., exit interview form, final employee performance appraisal, exit interviewer's comment form, record of documents given with final paycheck)
Record of every decision involving the dismissal or refusal to renew the contract of any public official, employee or appointee. (1 M.R.S.A. § 407)
2. Payroll & Wage/Salary Administration W-4 Form
Weekly time sheets
Individual attendance record
Pay advance request record
Garnishment orders and records
Authorization for release of private information
Authorization for all other payroll actions
Job description form
Job analysis questionnaire
Payroll authorization form
Fair Labor Standards Act exemption test (if applicable)
Compensation history record
Compensation recommendations
Notification of wage and/or salary increase/decrease
3. Performance Documentation New employee progress reports
Performance evaluation forms
Performance improvement program records
Significant achievements
4. Training and Development Training records
Training program applications/requests
Skills inventory questionnaire
Training evaluation forms
In-house training notification letters
Training expense reimbursement records
5. Benefits Health insurance application
Medical/Dental/Vision coverage waiver/drop form
Life insurance application
Vacation accrual/taken form
Request for leave of absence
FMLA documentation (except medical information)
Retirement application
Payroll deduction authorizations
COBRA notification/election
Tuition reimbursement application and/or payment records
Employer concession and/or discount authorization
Annual benefits statement acknowledgment
Safety training/meeting attendance/summary forms
6. Employee Relations & Discipline Report of coaching/counseling session
Commendations
Written warning notice
Disciplinary decisions
Completed employee suggestion forms
Suggestion status reports

Beyond the host of items that may be included in an employee personnel file there also exist many items that should not be placed in such files. The following categories of documents should be placed in their own separate files due to the sensitive nature of the information (which is not to say that all documents contained in the "primary" file are public). Again, in hopes of presenting the material in an easier format, the following is a chart summarizing personnel documents which should not be stored in an employee's primary personnel file. 

SEGREGATED EMPLOYEE INFORMATION

Medical Records Physician records of examination (including FMLA, ADA medical information)
Diagnostic records
Laboratory test records
Employee Assistance Program (EAP) consent form if it contains medical information
Drug screening records
Agility test records containing medical information
Investigation Records Discrimination complaint investigation information
Legal case data
Accusations of policy/legal violations
Security Clearance Investigation Records Background investigation information
Personal credit history
Personal criminal conviction history
Arrest records
Health, Safety & Medical Personal accident reports
Workers' compensation report of injury
OSHA reports
Hazardous substance notification and/or reports

It has also been recommended by human resources professionals that employee I-9 forms used to document numbers, which prove the employee's identity, and right to work in this country also be kept together in a separate file. All employees hired after November 6, 1986 must fill out this form by virtue of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Because government agencies are authorized to visit work places and review an employer's I-9 forms, it is a good idea to have all I-9 forms stored in one file, apart from individual employee files. If these forms are not stored in a separate file, government representatives might find themselves rummaging through more information than they need--which may or may not be "a good thing."

What form must personnel files be maintained in? According to 26 M.R.S.A. § 631, records in a personnel file may be maintained in any form including paper, microfiche or electronic form. Regardless of the form, the employer must take "adequate steps to ensure the integrity and confidentiality" of records. An employer maintaining records in a form other than paper must have available to the employee, former employee or duly authorized representative the equipment necessary to review and copy the personnel file. Municipal employers must also keep in mind that if a member of the public submits a request for non-confidential employee information, and records are maintained in forms other than in paper, the municipality would also somehow have to make available the information requested. Employers failing to comply with information requests under § 631, without good cause, are subject to fines. 

Confidentiality. The safest rule of thumb is to treat all information contained in a municipal employee's personnel file as confidential unless an exception exists. Limiting access to employee information on a "need to know" basis internally within the workplace is the best approach. Unless an employee is requesting non-confidential employee information in their capacity as "citizen" based on the "Right to Know Law," following the "need to know" approach is the correct practice.

With regards to the general public, because of the "Right to Know Law, " municipal records (including personnel records) that are not specifically deemed confidential by law are accessible to the public. This is where certain exceptions to the general rule of confidentiality exist. Title 30-A, § 2702 establishes the confidentiality of only certain municipal personnel records i.e., removes them from the gamut of documents open to public inspection.

According to § 2702, personnel records specifically exempt from the definition of "public records" include:

Municipalities must organize and create documents in a manner that maintains the integrity of confidential documents yet provides the public access to non-confidential information contained in personnel files (e.g., wages, job descriptions). Because municipalities in this state work under broadly written "public records" laws, allowing the general public much access to information, the probability that a resident will someday request information from an employee personnel file is good. If the municipality has properly organized its personnel files, the task will be much easier and safer i.e., there will be less likelihood of releasing confidential information.

Storing personnel records. Personnel files should be stored in a secure location, preferably under lock and key, and if possible should not be left unattended. Of course, if the files are archival records i.e., old records of past employees, chances are they will be placed in storage facilities or file cabinets away from the central office. But again, even old personnel files should be kept locked. 

Releasing personnel information. There are a few scenarios, which municipal employers should plan for regarding the release of employee information. First, municipalities must decide what records or information to release in the event a prospective employer calls regarding an employee. The common practice (due to liability for defamation) is to confirm only the most generic employment information such as employee title, dates of employment and salary. Although it is not uncommon for employers to deviate from this practice when dealing with "stellar" employees, municipalities must be careful whenever straying from established practices. The general rule is to apply policies and practices consistently—exceptions to policies, or inconsistent application of policies is often breeding ground for lawsuits based on discrimination—so tread carefully on this one. 

It is also not uncommon for employees to request that personnel (or personal) information be released for financial reasons. For example, an employee may want the employer to verify information that may be required to support such things as mortgage and credit card applications. Despite the fact that some of the information necessary to confirm such employment information is a matter of public record i.e., wages, it is still a very good idea to get into the habit of requiring employee-written authorization, specifying the precise nature of the information to be released to prospective creditors, etc. Such policies protect the employer as much as the employee and employees should be told that such a policy is designed for their protection.

Personnel Records Retention Requirements

Record

Minimum* or Retention Period*

Application for Employment (When applicant is not hired) 2 years under Maine State Record Retention Rules.
Drug & Alcohol Testing Documents 5 years for mandatory testing under federal Motor Carrier law. Under Maine law, employers conducting optional testing must employ laboratories that must retain records of confirmed positive results for at least 2 years (26 M.R.S.A. § 683). For consistency—it is suggested that all drug-testing documents obtained by municipalities be kept for a 5-year period.
EEO-1 Forms (For employers of 100 or more employees) A copy of the most recently filed report must be made available at all times.
Employee Earnings Statements 6 years under Maine State Record Retention Rules (3 years under the FLSA, ADEA, FMLA).
ERISA (Records of benefit plan & plan descriptions) 6 years
Injury Records 5 years under OSHA and Workers' Comp. "Long term" claim records require 20 years under Maine State Record Retention Rules.
INS I-9 (Immigration) Form & Employment Verification Form 3 years after hire or 1 year after termination.
Payroll Records 6 years under Maine State Record Retention Rules** (3 years under the FLSA, ADEA, FMLA).
Personnel Files 60 years under Maine State Record Retention Rules.
Time Cards, Time Sheets, Overtime, etc. 6 years under Maine State Record Retention Rules** (3 years under the FLSA, ADEA, FMLA).

*When 2 standards exist under both federal and State law—the longer standard is provided.
** If no summary of this information exists in the personnel file, which is kept for 60 years, the 60-year rule applies independently to this document.

NOTE: Given the various retention periods, keeping most documents 6 years is the easiest practice with the exception of the items, which must be kept 60 years.