Secretarial: The truth is out there - in your manager's X-file

The Data Protection Bill will help you find out what your boss really thinks of you.
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The Independent Culture
HAVE YOU ever wondered what your manager really wrote on your latest appraisal? Or what snide comments fill the margins of the time- keeping records which your employers keep? After all, the entire office knows punctuality isn't your forte. Well, you need wonder no more because, from 24 October, the implementation of the new Data Protection Bill means that you will be legally entitled to access virtually all personal files kept on you by your employers. What's more, if you think that anything in them is potentially damaging in even the slightest way, you can do something about it.

In fact, the 1984 Data Protection Act means that employees are already entitled to see certain computerised files held on them. But since this refers only to straightforward factual details, most of us don't bother taking a peek. It's the juicy stuff - the records kept in the form of paper documents - that we want to get our paws on.

And since the new Bill incorporates everything from performance reviews to annual appraisals - and disciplinary records - we can now find out exactly what our bosses think of us.

"All employers need to start reviewing the content of their personnel files," warns Angela Edward, policy adviser for the Institute of Personnel and Development. "People accumulate information for all sorts of bizarre reasons. They will now be liable for them."

Sonya, a personnel manager who has worked at five different companies over the course of her career, knows this all too well. "I've known middle managers to scribble down even the vaguest suspicions of theft and sexual harassment on data that is kept in manual files. I remember one who used to make notes on how he thought certain members of staff could improve the way they dressed. I'll never forget his comment, `Shows too much cleavage in my opinion. But business good so perhaps not clients' opinion'. If employees got to see stuff like that, all hell would break loose."

In cases of serious error, employers will find themselves vulnerable to legal proceedings. Even those individuals who don't get as far as being employed may have rights: the bill gives people who are judged by automated evaluation processes (such as systems which scan CVs automatically and reject those failing to meet specific criteria) the right to be notified of the results - and, furthermore, to challenge them if they are unhappy.

"But it's not only unsubstantiated opinion," stresses Angela Edward. "Employees will be able to scrutinise all records on details such as their age, address and history of previous employers. They will have the right to have them corrected, because they can affect career prospects."

According to Olga Aikin, senior partner at the employment law firm the Aikin-Driver Partnership, the new law means that employers will also have to ensure that individual records don't refer to anyone other than the employee in question. "If you and I are both given the same wage increase, it is not uncommon for only one document to be produced - a copy of which is be put into each of our files. But in future,that will mean I can get information on you, and vice versa."

Although there will be a three-year transitional period before full access rights on existing files are established, Aikin believes that employers urgently need to address the nature of the information they routinely collate.

Autumn's bill will also introduce restrictions regarding the existence of records on the grounds of someone's race, sexuality, philosophical beliefs and trade union membership. "But I can't see that these details will be banned from being held altogether," says Angela Edward. "The Government can't say that they are not allowed to be kept and also that these details need to be monitored in order to assess the effect of equal opportunity policies."

One of the major concerns about the legislation centres on potential loopholes: "Organisations could, for instance, argue that personal files are being used to negotiate pay or redundancy settlements and should therefore be kept secret. Alternatively, they could just keep the information that they don't want their staff to see in `unstructured files', such as various desk drawers," says Edward. "Mind you, I see little point in doing this because, if they are by chance found, the risk of being taken to court still applies."

Personnel manager Sonya claims that two of the organisations for which she worked required 24 hours' notice before computer files could be accessed. "If this policy is extended to manual files, it will give the personnel department a chance to remove anything vaguely dodgy before the member of staff gets their hands on it. I know that the new bill means employees will legally be allowed to demand to waive any prior notice - but because most employees don't like causing rifts, and because most employees won't even be aware of their rights, I suspect that this may continue in many companies." It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Campaign for Freedom of Information has expressed concerns that absolute access to your personal documents may yet be some way off.

All experts nevertheless agree that certain exclusions will be necessary. "I'm sure employers will breathe a huge sigh of relief to discover that employees will not be permitted to see their employment references," says Olga Aikin.

Perhaps the most that can be expected of the new legislation is that it will encourage employers to reconsider the value of the records they keep on their employees.