The final draft of the new code of practice on employee records is now available, from the Office of the Information Commissioner. It radically extends employees’ rights to see records kept on them by employers. For a £10 fee, employees will be able to ask to see nearly any record that mentions them, including “sickness records, disciplinary or training records, appraisal or performance review notes, email logs, audit trails, and information held in general personnel files.” Effectively the code gives a general right of access to any information held in an organised filing system, whether paper or electronic, with only a very narrow range of exceptions. Many companies may be unprepared for the implications of the code, as business has generlaly been slow to realise that emails are stored, effectively permanently.
TUC Employment Rights Officer, Hannah Reed, welcomed the new code: “We welcome the new Employment Practices Data Protection Code, which will encourage greater transparency and help develop best practice in the relationship between people and their employers. Advances in technology mean that employers now obtain, store, use and disseminate substantial amounts of information about individual workers,
while surveillance techniques in the workplace are becoming ever more sophisticated and intrusive. While there are perfectly valid reasons for employers to keep some records, intensive gathering and circulation of information is intrusive and undermines the trust between employers and their staff. By giving workers access to their employment records, new data protection laws will give workers greater confidence that the information held about them is accurate and not being used for inappropriate purposes. The new laws provide important new safeguards for individual’s sensitive personal information, including health records, helping to
ensure that private information remains confidential.”
The Institute of Directors has made a more ambivalent response, but their statement recognises the advantages of openness: “There is a danger that this will greatly increase bureaucracy, with new controls needed to make sure that everything is recorded and filed in a form suitable to allow employee access. For example, it will be important to ensure that all records about one employee can be disclosed to that employee without accidentally disclosing anything about another employee. On the positive side, the effect may be to encourage greater openness. In general, workplaces in which managers and staff are up-front with one another are better than those in which they are secretive. There is a parallel with the claims for workplace stress recently considered by the Court of Appeal: it was made clear in those cases that if employees are suffering workplace stress, they need to say so rather than keep quiet and expect their employers to guess that there is a problem.”