5 Ways Companies Mishandle Employee Records

(I am going to be on a short vacation this week – New York City here I come!  This guest post was provided by Jessica Edmondson who contributes on business and leadership issues, such as human resource management, for the University Alliance, a division of Bisk Education, Inc.)

Employees rely on employers to treat their personnel records with care and to maintain their privacy, particularly with highly confidential or personal matters. Mishandling employee records can erode trust and lead to serious repercussions, including legal action.

By reviewing some of the more common and most harmful ways that employers mishandle records, you may be able to prevent the same mistakes from happening at your workplace.

Mistake 1: Giving Employees Unfettered Access

This mistake can happen in one of two basic ways: by providing certain employees with unrestricted access to review the files of others; or by failing to secure records to prevent unauthorized access. Personnel records must be kept under lock and key. Otherwise, it can prove to be too much temptation for others who have no business looking through such records. Although there are circumstances in which a manager may need to see a subordinate’s file, allowing open access might mean making the manager privy to more information than he or she is entitled to and may also constitute a breach of the employee’s right to privacy.

You should secure all employee records, including hard and soft copies, with appropriate controls, such as passwords and locks. Access should be closely monitored and recorded, and should be limited only to those who demonstrate a specific, job-related need to review the records.

Mistake 2: Consolidating Records into a Single File

Employees have several types of information on file, including IRS and payroll records, job applications, performance appraisals and medical information. By putting everything into one file, you run a higher risk of a breach of privacy. For example, a supervisor might have a legitimate need to see a performance appraisal and in the process ends up getting access to the employee’s medical records.

A better practice would be to file records separately by type, such as general employee information, compensation information, and medical or legal information. Then limit access based on specific needs. Medical and legal information typically requires the highest level of security and the most stringent review procedures. Separating records by type also helps ensure that they are retained for the appropriate amount of time.

Mistake 3: Misplacing or Discarding Files When an Employee Leaves

Various laws govern how long employers must retain employee records and failure to abide by those regulations can have significant legal consequences. Misplacing files can be worse than discarding them, as the employer has no way of knowing who has had access to private information or how to recover it.

It’s critical to have a retention policy in place that is in full compliance with all applicable state and federal laws. In addition, you should also have a well-designed filing system so that authorized personnel can access the correct files when needed.

Mistake 4: Failing to Document Important Events

If an employee or former employee files a grievance, the company’s main line of defense is all in the personnel file. The easiest way to guarantee a legal victory for the disgruntled employee in such matters is through a failure to document.

Do you and your management staff document performance issues and keep copies of written reprimands? Do you have a signed acknowledgement that the employee was notified or trained on certain company policies, such as sexual harassment, attendance requirements and the like?  If not, now is the time to start compiling information so that employees can’t say they didn’t know, and managers can demonstrate employee awareness and the company’s attempts to resolve the situation.

Mistake 5: Backfilling the File to Replace Missing Records

If you do find yourself in a legal dispute with an employee and discover that his or her file has no evidence of a history of performance issues, the worst thing you can do is to add or alter documents after the file has been reviewed. Most attorneys are skilled at evaluating the chain of custody of an employee’s personnel file and “missing” documents that are suddenly found almost always backfire on the employer. You’re better off just taking your lumps for failing to properly document issues. Even better, follow the advice in the previous step and establish a policy for employee documentation.

By learning from the errors of others, you can prevent making these same missteps and inadvertently losing the trust of your employees, as well as putting your company at risk for legal action.

The #1 HR Pro In The Movies


Last month Moviefone took it upon themselves to rank every single character created by Pixar Studios.   Woody, of Toy Story fame, took the #1 spot.

This didn’t surprise me in the slightest because I have always been a big fan of all of the Toy Story movies. The actor who voices Woody, Tom Hanks, is also one of my favorites.

But it wasn’t until I read Moviefone’s blog post that I started thinking seriously about why I liked Woody as much as I do. And here’s where those thoughts took me –  I like Woody because he is the best HR pro I have ever seen in the movies. Here’s why:

Experienced – Woody is a wooden toy with a pull ring coming from his back, but he is the undisputed leader of his company, which I call Andy Development Services, Inc. Andy is the human who owns all of the toys, and their mission is to teach Andy to be a loving, creative, and thoughtful adult. Being an older toy, it is sometimes tough for Woody to accept competition and change. But he ultimately overcomes his fears, using his knowledge and experience to adapt and lead.

Business Leadership – Woody is the undisputed leader of his company, and his actions are always consistent with its mission. No one told him to become a business leader, and he didn’t wait around for someone to invite him or create the role for him.  He used his skills and abilities and just did it.

Strategic Employee Development – This is where Woody really shines as an HR pro. He has an incredibly diverse workforce with huge differences in talent, skills and abilities. He recognizes all of the differences and what each toy can do in their unique way to further the company mission, without judgment of their faults or failings. He mentors Buzz Lightyear after first thinking of him as a rival, so that Buzz will also fit into the team and put the company mission in the fore front. Woody has a gun on his hip (perhaps to enforce company policy), but he never needs to use it. When trouble arises – as it inevitably does – Woody makes sure that everyone in the company works to solve the problem and return the company mission to its misson.

Woody gets my vote as best HR pro in the movies, even though the movie isn’t actually about business. Who is your favorite example of a movie character who is a great HR pro?


3 Attitudes To Lose Before Your Next Conference or Seminar

I didn’t have the opportunity to attend professional conferences for a long time, because small business often can’t afford the fees or loss of services from the employee. So I have a kind of bee in my bonnet when I see people waste what I think is a privelege because of their own attitudes. Here are 3 that I often see that should disappear:

1. “I’m only here for credits.” Many professions have some kind of continuing education requirement, including HR and the law, the two I am directly involved in. So  I absolutely understand the need to keep those credits rolling in. But if getting credits is the only reason for attending a conference or choosing a session, you might as well stay home and get your credits from the web, where you can sleep or do other things without anyone knowing. Instead, choose sessions or conferences that engage you or spark your imagination. Or spend time at your next conference networking. You won’t get credit for networking, but you will get a valuable career experience that is just as important. But if the only reason you walked into the door was for the credit, you have already closed your mind and limited your ability to learn.

2. “This doesn’t apply to my organization.”  If you listen to a speaker discuss a topic and then spend time deciding how it can’t or won’t work in your organization, you have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. You have taken a call to action and turned it into inaction, simply by believing it’s not actionable. The name of the children’s story is not “The Little Engine That Couldn’t”. You will have a much better conference experience if you think of how it can work, instead of how it can’t.

3. “I don’t need to know anything about this topic.” You may think that you don’t need to know anything about marketing if you are an HR pro, or tech issues if you are a lawyer.  But so what? It’s the ability to open our minds to new ideas and experiences that helps us innovate and creatively solve problems that we do encounter. And you never know when something that is said in one of those supposedly non-essential conferences will spark the idea that pushes your career to the next level.

Are there any more attitudes that hold you back from using conferences to maximize your development? Let me know in the comments.

A Special Two-Part June #SHRMChat

This month SHRM hosts its annual mega-conference in Atlanta, June 24-27 (SHRM12). In order to take advantage of the opportunity to have SHRM staffers together in one room to participate in our chat during Atlanta, it has been decided to have two chats around one topic.

Our topic is SHRM – What It Can, Will, and Should Do For Your Chapter or Council.

During our regular 2nd Tuesday chat time on June 12, we will have a preliminary-type chat, without guests. The purpose is to discuss this topic and decide which questions or issues are most important. Then we will use the first discussion to firm up the questions and issues, and live chat from the SHRM conference with the appropriate SHRM staff guests. By doing this in two parts, we have to opportunity to find SHRM members who are best able to address our specific concerns. It also allows people who are not able to be present at one or the other to have the opportunity to participate in the topic.

Here is a general outline of questions for #SHRMChat on Tuesday, June 12, 8 pm EST/7 pm CST:

1. Name a program, service, or initiative that SHRM can do for your state or local. Is it something you have used to your benefit? Is it a service you know they have but haven’t tried yet? What can SHRM do that others may not know about? What do they do best?

2. Maybe it’s not a formal service or program, but have you had experience with SHRM doing something when you asked or sought specific help? Can you provide an example of something that SHRM will do?

3. The relationship between SHRM and its state and local affiliates is critical. Is there a service or program that you have really needed but haven’t been able to get from SHRM? What should they do?

After the June 12 chat, we will announce the time for the live chat from Atlanta, so be sure to stay tuned!

HR and Job Interview Attire

When I was still working at my former company, I was continually trying to hire meat trimmers. Hand trimming large pieces of meat and poultry to exacting specifications with a knife is a skill not easily learned and no longer taught. And the best meat trimmers are usually taken by large grocery store chains with an in-house meat department, so finding qualified candidates was always a challenge.

After the resume review and a phone screen, I would ask those still in the running to come into the plant for an interview. I always warned the candidate not to wear professional or business clothes, because the main reason I wanted them at the plant was to do a cutting test to see if they truly had the knife skills they claimed to have. Cutting meat in a wet, refrigerated space is sloppy work, and I certainly didn’t want anyone ruining their good clothes.

You see, I was interested in the applicant’s skills and abilities, and not at all in their appearance. In fact, throughout our entire building, even the office, I had one clothing rule: clothes should be reasonably clean.

But if you are a job candidate and asked me advice for what to wear to an interview, I would tell you the same thing everyone else would: wear business attire. Maybe business casual, if you were certain it fit in the company culture. I would never think of going to a job interview or even certain business functions dressed in shorts and flip flops, or blue jeans and a hoodie. All kinds of articles and blogs are written about what to wear, or not wear, to a job interview, like this one from Alison Doyle, who says “dress professionally for an interview, even if the work environment is casual.”

I find that incredibly sad. As HR pros we claim to be interested only in applicant’s KSAs – knowledge, skills, and abilities. We supposedly don’t care about their body type, hair and skin color, clothing choices, or sense of style.

But we do. Oh, yes. We do very much.

We do because our rational, intellectual behaviors are often at odds with our emotional reactions. So we use our rational selves to justify the sometimes erroneous assumptions or conclusions reached by our emotional selves. We reject applicants for their “poor judgment” or “lack of business sense”, when we are really faulting someone for their clothes, or the poor fit of their clothes, or their ugly (but comfortable) shoes. Unfortunately, we perpetuate that bias by forcing job candidates to conform, instead of forcing ourselves to change.

Think of it like this: If Mark Zuckerberg walked into your office as a job applicant, wearing his customary hoodie and blue jeans, would you hire him? What about Steve Jobs, who seemed to wear nothing but a black shirt and blue jeans his entire professional life?

You may say yes, because they are public figures whose achievements are known and transcend appearances. But what if it were someone else, a non-public figure  whose resume, phone interview, and other screening devices were good enough to bring him into your office, wearing the same hoodie or black shirt and blue jeans. Would you hire him then?

Be honest now – you probably would reject him.

Isn’t that tragic?

HR pros need to find a way to confront and eliminate their emotional biases about clothes and appearance and concentrate on what really matters – whether the candidate’s KSAs are going to help their company promote its mission. Stop making the candidate conform to your sensibilities in order to land a job.

Otherwise you might miss hiring the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. Besides, HR has more important things to do.



May SHRM Chat – Helping Small Business Do HR

According to the US Census Bureau, there were just under 5 million “employer firms” in the US that employed less than 10 employees. Add another 1.2 million firms to that total to include those employers with less than 100 people. I don’t need a statistical study to tell me this: the vast majority of those 6 million plus firms have absolutely no formal or traditional HR  presence. In fact, I began my HR journey in one of those companies.

Unfortunately, formal HR organizations, including SHRM, tend to market themselves to people who are already established HR pros with degrees and certifications. How the small business copes with employee engagement or professional development is just not very high on their to do list, even though the numbers suggest it should be.

This month our SHRM chat will take a look a that issue and discuss how SHRM state and local chapters can help non-HR business people “do” HR.  Joining us as a guest will be Lyn Hoyt.

While Lyn is an avid supporter and participant of SHRMChat on behalf of her local (Middle Tennessee SHRM), many people may not know that Lyn, by profession, is not an HR pro. She is a graphic designer and co-owner of a small business that designs and manufactures framed recognition products. So her experiences through the back door are perfectly suited to our discussion of the following questions:

1. How many or what percent of your chapter members are not traditional HR pros? Do you feel that your chapter/council adequately represents business without a dedicated HR function?

2. Do non- HR pros attend your meetings and functions? Why or why not?

3. What services or programs does your council/chapter offer to help non-HR business people find the resources they need to help them with their HR needs?

For a sneak peek of Lyn’s thoughts on this subject, check out her blog post here.


Join us on TUESDAY, MAY 8th at 8 pm EDST/7 pm CDST for this #SHRMChat! Encourage a friend to come, too!


HR Hates True Diversity

Inc. magazine posted a blog a couple of weeks ago entitled “5 Reasons You Need to Meet in Person”. Reason #3 was “make an impression”, and the author made hers with a pink, faux ostrich purse.

Now, pink is probably my least favorite color, and ostrich – faux or otherwise – is not my preferred texture in a handbag. But I always like messages that encourage people to accept and embrace their individuality. Joe Gerstandt, noted diversity and inclusion author and speaker, calls it flying your freak flag.

Embedded in that paragraph about carrying a pink purse, though, was a sad and telling sentence about the state of diversity in the HR/recruiting world today: “I was worried it was perhaps not professional enough for business.” With that sentence, the author turned her message “make an impression” into “make an impression – but only if it’s safe.”

HR and their recruiting counterparts claim to believe in diversity, but only because they try to be color or race-blind in their hiring decisions.  When it comes to  tons of other things that are marks of individuality – where you went to school, what you wear, what kind of company you keep,and what kind of jewelry you like – HR is incredibly close-minded. They want employees to think and look like them, and like everyone else in the company. That’s why people who write job seeker advice tell you to cover your tattoos and hide your flashy wedding ring, because diversity in HR is a no-no unless it is legally mandated, like race and religion.

In his latest book, Social Gravity (co-authored with Jason Lauritsen), Joe Gerstandt tells a story of working at a job fair with another recruiter when a gentleman visited their booth wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. His co-recruiter dismissed the gentleman as “clearly not management material” without knowing a thing about his talent, competency, or ability.

As Joe points out, we all make assumptions about other people that are often incorrect. HR pros and recruiters like the one in Joe’s story, though, are truly disadvantaged when they don’t fight back against that natural inclination to stereotype, and fail to embrace the worker who may look, talk, or dress just a little bit differently than everyone else. As a recruiter once said to me at a SHRM chapter meeting, “I don’t know why HR cares about all this stuff. They should only care about whether or not the person is going to help them make money. Period.”

So I continue to wear my Fit-Flop brand flip flops to business meetings, because they are the only shoes (except athletic shoes) that my problem feet can tolerate. If people talk behind my back, or if I fail to impress a potential client, so what? I just think of the song “I Am What I Am”, from the musical La Cage aux Folles, where Jerry Herman writes

So what if I love each feather and each spangle? Why not try to see things from a different angle?

Why not, HR?


The NLRB Facebook Cases – What Was Your Employment Lawyer Thinking?


Today's post is my 100th!


When I was in law school I had a professor who was positively gaga about policy. It was her belief that  students who understood what policy objective the courts and legislatures were trying to achieve would have a better understanding of and rememberence of any given law. It would also help those future lawyers, when confronted with facts and situations that had not been previously addressed, analyze those facts within the existing law and come to some type of reasonable conclusion (especially on her exam ;-)).

I used that technique to a large degree myself when I was a law professor, and I found it an invaluable way to keep sight of a law and its potential impact when faced with an endless series of “but, what if  . . .?” questions from my students.

So it puzzles me a bit that there is such a fuss about the NLRB and the so-called “Facebook cases”.  After all, the Wagner Act, or NLRA, has been the law for 75 years. Not exactly a new, untried law. Under the NLRA, all workers have the right to engage in concerted activity for the purpose of mutual aid and protection, and, if you think about it, the workers of today have always had that right. The policy objective underneath that act is to protect and encourage the formation of unions, which takes a whole lot of communication between employees about their common grievances.

So why would any employment lawyer worth his or her hefty fee advise a company to write a policy that forbids them from discussing work on social media sites such as Facebook? Or draft  a policy that forbids an employee from making a “negative comment” about their employer?

The many lawyers who advised their clients to adopt such policies, or even suggested outright social media bans – and based on these cases there were plenty – forgot the policy behind the NLRA. They forgot that this law was intended to protect certain kinds of communication among employees in order to keep them safe from those activities that might lead to unionization.

Not only did the lawyers forget the policy behind the law, they were so concerned about risk avoidance and so frightened of social media that they didn’t take the time to understand that it constituted an essential shift in the way that Americans, including workers, were communicating with each other.

Maybe the lawyers who advised employers to adopt these overly broad policies just simply forgot about the existence of the NLRA and its commitment to helping workers discuss their joint concerns about wages, hours, and working conditions.

Whatever the reason for the lawyer’s failing, it was not just a situation of “the rapidly changing law”, as many want you to believe. So if you have an overly broad social media policy suggested by a lawyer, that you are now struggling to change in light of the NLRB’s recent activity, you may want to throw out the lawyer as well as the policy.




Should You Stop At “Good Enough?”

If you have read this blog before, you know that I like to tell stories. At my advancing age there are so many of them, and social media connections help me remember and revisit them to see if I learned anything at the time, or can still learn now.

So when a Facebook friend posted this comment (about a picture of an alligator), it reminded me of my own time at the police academy.

When I attended the academy, candidates were required to meet certain standards in the following areas – academic, physical agility, and marksmenship. Each area had a minimum score that the candidate had to reach during a final test in order to pass and become certified. If you weren’t certified, you could not work as a police officer.

The physical agility test was a series of tasks, like running a mile in a certain time, and doing a minimum number of push-ups and sit-ups. When it was my turn, I did whatever minimum number it was to pass, and then stopped.

“Hey!” yelled one of my instructors as I was getting up after doing my minimum sit-ups. “I know you can do more!”

“Sure, ” I replied, “but what for? I’m not going to win any agility award, and I passed. I don’t see the point in doing any additional.”

Then I walked away, leaving the instructor scowling.

HR pundits and bloggers often discuss how important it is to try, and how people shouldn’t stop themselves from achieving more.  But I’m not sure if it’s necessary to always try to be on top. It may be just as important to minimize your effort in some area in order to shine brighter in another (I did win the academic award with the highest score in my academy class).

Sometimes, I think, good enough really is just that.

Do you?



You Don’t Have To Pay To Be Inspired

(Friends – some of you know that I am starting a new life chapter. I am in the process of moving to Florida, where I hope to meet and work with a whole new group of HR and social media people. But packing and moving is time consuming, so I am going to apologize for not posting my blog for the next month or so. Bear with me – I’ll be back!)



Some of you may remember that I poked fun at SHRM a while back for booking Michael J. Fox as a keynote speaker. He’s a purely inspirational speaker, and my argument at the time was that there were more pressing issues concerning the field of human resources to be discussed, and that he wasn’t the person we needed to discuss them.

This week, while looking into Transform, the new conference hosted by TLNT, I sadly discovered another reason to argue against the use of  high-end motivational or inspirational speakers: they drive the cost of conference attendance too high for the average HR practitioner to attend.

Now, to be fair to TLNT, I can’t say for sure that their speakers are purely inspirational in content, and maybe they all will have some real world, practical solutions that a practitioner can take back to work and immediately implement.

Okay, the moon is made of cheese.

I know this for sure, though – their 2 day conference cost is a whopping $1200-1600. That’s as high as SHRM’s national conference, with far fewer sessions and speaker choices. They don’t even have Hall & Oates or Keith Urban.

I don’t need to pay a huge sum of money to be inspired. Inspiration is all around me, cost-free. Here are some examples of every day people who have inspired me recently:

  • Jennifer DuRocher – a flyball and Facebook friend who recently lost over 140 pounds. Her incredible story was recently featured on a local news station.
  • Bryan Wempen – as the host of Drive Thru HR he is familiar name to many of you. Bryan (a grandfather!) decided to get fit and start running, so he could participate in a memorial race for a friend. He recently completed his first 1/2 marathon.
  • Branden Ginsberg – yes, he’s related (stepson), but after a long battle with drug addiction and a prison term, he is drug-free, healthy, and has kept his job for over 2 years.

All of these people motivate and inspire me to do better things. I don’t have to pay a cent or pack a suitcase.

What about you? Is there someone in your life that you find inspirational? Leave a comment and share the story. :-)