Massachusetts law has long required employers to give workers access to their personnel files upon request. Which is fine, I guess. But a new change to the law now requires companies to notify employees about any potentially negative information added to their files. The amendment, which Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law on August 5, was tucked away in an “economic development” bill laden with higher-profile items like the recent sales-tax holiday. (To see how "probusiness" the law is, check out the Governor's press release from the signing. No mention of this provision, natch.) I have no particular opinion on the rest of the law. But this new personnel-records rule is going to lead to more employee lawsuits.
Here are five things you need to know:
Employers must tell workers about negative entries. An employer now has to notify an employee when it puts into a personnel record any information that has been or may be used to negatively affect the worker’s job. This must be done within ten days. The law leaves unchanged an employee’s right to review or get a copy of their records within five days of requesting it. The only sop to employers is a limit on these requests to two a year. But that limit does not apply to the notice and review of negative entries.
There could be serious penalties for failing to comply. The Attorney General’s Office is charged with enforcing the statute. The amendment does not change the existing penalty, which is a fine of between $500 and $2,500. It’s not yet clear to what extent the AG’s Office will seek to enforce the law. Besides these penalties, the new law could cause problems for employers during other employment litigation. If discovery reveals that the employer failed to comply, this could hurt the employer’s credibility.
Employers now face a dilemma about documentation. On the one hand, we’re always warning clients to document employee issues as much as possible, just in case the issues go to litigation. On the other hand, the new law makes putting relatively innocuous information into a personnel file a much more-provocative event. Now a quiet, low-level note in a file carries the risk of unnecessarily agitating the employee. Agitated employees become disgruntled employees, and disgruntled employees sue. Under the new law, employers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Many employers are required to keep personnel records. If you employ 20 or more workers, then you’re required to keep in personnel records any written information about:
- job title and description
- pay information
- start date
- job application
- probationary periods
- termination notice
- any documents on discipline
The law doesn’t benefit anyone (except lawyers). The amendment snuck in below the radar, without any discussion in the employment-law community. It’s antiemployer, in that it places companies at increased risk for employee lawsuits. While advocates could possibly argue that workers benefit from increased “transparency,” we disagree. There are times when a prudent employer should make a minor note in a file without escalating it to a human-resources event. Employees shouldn’t need to be stressed out by every less-than-positive note made in a file. But the new law makes that unavoidable.
So what do you do now? This is a tricky one. How to handle it depends on your current practice of handling personnel records as well as on your corporate culture. Talk with your employment counsel about devising a strategy for handling employee documentation in light of this new law.
Unfortunately, a paper trail could now take you down the wrong path.
What do you think? Is this going to be a problem for your workplace? Sound off in the comments below.