I’d wager that personnel files are some of the most well-known records that are exempt from public access in North Carolina. They’re common to every office, and almost all of an employee’s personnel file is exempt from public access. Those parts of it that are open to the public are laid out explicitly in the statutes.
With that said, parts of a personnel file are accessible by certain individuals. For example, an employee’s supervisor has access to all of that person’s file. How much access, though, does an employee have to his or her own personnel file? Employee access is wide, but not absolute. As with confidential information in general, there is some information that the employee may not see, and other information that the employee need not see. (Please note that while the municipal and county personnel privacy statutes are identical, other local government agencies’ and state agencies’ statutes can differ in subtle, but important, ways. Check with your analyst to see whether the rules discussed below apply to you.)
Here are the things in an employee’s personnel file that the employee can’t see:
- Letters of reference solicited before employment
- Information concerning a medical disability that a prudent physician would not divulge to his or her patient
- Driver history information from the State Bureau of Investigation
These things may not be disclosed to an employee through the employee’s personnel file. However, medical information should be withheld only upon advice from a physician or other health care professional, and current medical ethical standards oppose withholding such information without the patient’s knowledge. In the third instance, if an employee wishes to see his or her driver history information, he or she may still do so through the Division of Motor Vehicles.
Here are the things in an employee’s personnel file that the employee need not see:
- Testing or examination material for appointment, employment, or promotion purposes, if the disclosure of this information would compromise the test’s objectivity
- Material used to investigate possible criminal actions of an employee, until the investigation is concluded
- Information that might identify an undercover law enforcement officer or informer
- Notes, preliminary drafts, and internal communications concerning an employee, unless these items are used for any personnel decision
Any of these materials may still be disclosed to the employee, at the discretion of the records custodian. The language in the fourth instance has recently been clarified through case law, and Dr. Frayda Bluestein has an excellent post looking at the implications of the case’s decision on the UNC School of Government’s local law blog.