People wants their medical information discussed around the water cooler, which is what can happen if an employee's doctor's note doesn't land in the right spot. The right spot is in a confidential file kept separate from the employee's personnel file. Employers risk violating federal laws concerning employee privacy if they keep doctor's notes -- or any other medical information -- in their employees' personnel files.
Employment files -- often referred to as personnel files -- contain documentation from the point at which an applicant expresses interest in a position to the day on which the employment relationship ends. In some cases, employers maintain personnel files beyond the end of the employer-employee relationship, particularly when there are unresolved issues such as formal complaints or pending litigation. File documents include employment applications, resumes and cover letters, compensation and benefits information, attendance, performance and training records, commendations and supervisors' notes.
Of all the employment-related materials stored in a personnel file, health-related or medical information must be confidential, maintained in a separate file. Federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act require this confidentiality. Employers that provide group health insurance must adhere to HIPAA privacy regulations concerning maintenance of employees' medical-related or health information, based on U.S. Health & Human Services regulations.
Sick leave policies are a matter of agreement between the employer and the employee. There are no laws that mandate an employer must provide paid time off for sick leave, but there are some state laws concerning how employers administer their sick-leave policies should they choose to offer this benefit to their workers; for example, the California Family Temporary Disability Insurance provides paid sick leave for certain workers. But the law doesn't dictate to employers where to file the doctor notes -- it's federal law that protects the privacy of employees and keeps their medical information from floating around the workplace.
Sick-leave policies should be in writing, with details set out in the employee handbook. Supervisors, managers and employees themselves must be aware of company sick-leave guidelines, the terms and conditions for using sick leave and documentation the employer requires to substantiate employee absences. Specific policies vary. Some employers require that employees bring a doctor's note for every absence; others only for absences that extend beyond a certain number of days. There are no laws or regulations that govern how an employer should administer the organization's sick leave policy. For example, there's no state or federal law that says an employer must require a doctor's note -- or that it can't require one. Employers that require doctors' notes want documentation to substantiate that the employee's time off was to seek medical treatment and that the time off was for a legitimate health-related reason. Regardless of the employer's specific policy, when an employee returns to work with a doctor's note, her supervisor should turn it in to the HR department so that it can be filed in a file that's separate from the employee's personnel file.