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Asking for Personnel File = Sending a Message (Think What It Is, and How it Will Be Received)

Many States, including Wisconsin, have laws that require an employer to give an employee a copy of his or her employee file (or "personnel file") upon request.

In some situations, a request for a personnel file can be a mundane, harmless and totally bureaucratic event. Maybe you've worked for an employer for ten years, and every January you ask the HR person for a copy of your personnel file for your own record-keeping purposes. If this is the situation, there will be no eyebrows raised with your token request.

However, if you're an employee in a dispute with your employer/manager, and you're thinking of requesting a copy of your personnel file, that is a whole different matter.

If you're in that situation, you may be thinking thoughts like this:

  • "I want to see my write-ups and all the other notes my management has been keeping on me."
  • "I want to see the case the employer is building on me, so I know what I'm dealing with, and maybe I can build my own case. Heck, maybe I will take legal action."

Before you request the file, however, have you thought about how your request will be interpreted by the employer?

Know this: your request is not just a request, it is also a message that you send. A personnel file request, to an employer, is a signal. That signal may or may not raise the employer's eyebrows, but the signal will be examined for its meaning.

It is not rare for an employer to get a personnel file request, but it is also not common. I'd bet that, when most employers do get personnel file requests, a sizable portion of those requests are by employees who have a dispute with the employers, and who want to deal with ammunition, so to speak.

Whatever the reason, I can tell you that when an employee requests his or her personnel file- especially, in the midst of a dispute - an employer will often interpret that request to be a shot across the bow. That is, an employer will often assume you have thoughts like those above, and assume you may be preparing for a legal action, whether or not that's the case.

If you're having trouble at work, before you request your personnel file, you should consider these things:

(1) Who will hear my request? Will they tell any person(s) I'm having disputes with? Really?

(2) How will my personnel file request likely be interpreted by the people who learn of the request?

(3) How are those people likely to react based on their interpretations? Will they get even angrier with me? Will they get to work on cover-your-b#tt activities, and be careful to hide evidence or intentions going forward?

(4) How helpful to me are the documents in the personnel file likely to be? Do I know what documents should be in there? Do I think the employer will actually provide them? And if the employer actually provides helpful documents as I anticipate, how helpful will they be? Will they help me negotiate with my employer or start a lawsuit? Did a lawyer tell me that?

(5) In weighing the potential advantages of getting personnel file documents versus the potential disadvantages of sending the employer a message, is it better to request the personnel file or not? If yes, when is the best timing and manner to do so?

These are some important factors that all too often go unexamined by a dispute-immersed employee who is about to make a personnel file request. Considering these things will help you better understand what message the personnel file request may send, what effects the request may have, and ultimately, whether it's a good idea to make the request at this time.

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