Monday, June 1, 2009

Confidentiality of personnel records help protect employers from defamation liability

Most people are not confrontational by nature. Maybe that is why many employers are lax about accurately documenting employees’ performance problems. People like to give others the benefit of the doubt, not make waves, and not hurt feelings. It only becomes a problem when an employee becomes an ex-employee and files a lawsuit. At that point, it becomes difficult to explain why an employee with good performance reviews and scant written discipline was fired for performance problems.

One thing that businesses should not have to worry about from negative information in employees’ personnel files is defamation liability. Outlaw v. Werner (Cuyahoga County 5/21/09) [PDF] involved a patient who sued her doctor for defamation based on negative information written in her chart. In affirming the dismissal of her defamation claim, the court commented that defamation liability cannot be premised on information that is kept confidential. Most employers would agree that employees’ personnel files are confidential. Indeed, not even the employee has a right to see his or her own file. Nevertheless, it is not a bad idea to build a policy into your handbook making clear that personnel files are confidential.

For more on the importance of accurately documenting employees’ performance histories and problems, take a look at the following posts from the archives:

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or