E-Mail Retention: When Should You Keep or Delete E-Mails?

By Gregory Natran

My recent involvement in an e-mail migration project and media reports of e-mail messages being deleted by support staff in the offices of prominent politicians have prompted me to share some thoughts on e-mail retention in a corporate environment. With few exceptions, it is not acceptable to just delete workplace messages, which introduces questions concerning what to keep and what to delete. These observations don’t necessarily apply to private inboxes, but like workplace mail, they may also become cluttered in short order – slowing the system down and making it difficult laptopto find and retrieve specific messages – without periodic review and purging. When it comes to workplace e-mail, the fact that a message may be a corporate record (and must be managed as such) makes the decision of what to keep and what to delete more complicated than personal mail. One can always delete promotional items and dinner invites from a personal inbox, but what about those workplace messages from human resources, or a manger’s instructions on how to deal with a particular issue? Fortunately, almost all medium and large organizations have formal records management policies in place. These policies specify what constitutes a corporate record. E-mail messages falling into the definition of corporate record are typically subject to the same retention and disposition requirements (schedules) as any other paper or electronic record. Moreover, these retention and disposition schedules should help determine how long to keep an e-mail message, if all parts in the message trail need to be kept, how to handle attachments and duplicate information in other formats, and whether or not a given message should be archived for long-term retention. If your organization does not have a schedule, here are some points to consider about what to keep or not.

Corporate versus Transitory Messages

E-mail messages generally fall into three categories: corporate records, transitory records, and other items. If a message is the final copy of a document related to the organization’s business and is the original or only copy, it is a corporate record and needs to be kept. Library and Archives provides some good guidelines for Canadians. Transitory records have value for only a limited time, usually for the duration of a given project or task. They are often copies of corporate records. Examples include: draft versions of final documents, supporting materials used to prepare final documents, meeting agendas (not minutes), electronic copies of printed originals that are used as the official corporate record, and messages sent as “cc” for the recipient’s information or convenience. These records are usually kept only as long as they are needed for immediate tasks and operations. Those messages falling into the “other items” category are the items everyone receives from time to time that are of no lasting business value. For example, it might be a message or group of messages related to lunch arrangements between colleagues. The extremes of what to keep and what to delete are generally straightforward. If a client requests project changes and those changes require extra billable time and/or involve other costs, the related messages should be kept to validate extra charges on the final invoice. On the other hand, messages regarding meeting arrangements or office car pool updates can be deleted to free your inbox of clutter. The next concern, however, is related to how long to keep e-mail messages that are genuine records.

Better Rules around Paper Retention

Historically, records have been created and maintained on paper. Consequently, the rules around retention and bindersdisposition of paper documents are generally more definitive and much clearer. Depending on the value/purpose of the record, anything from a contract, to tax-related statement, or partnership arrangement, the requirement for retention is clearly listed as one year, two years, seven years, or in perpetuity. Although some definitions exist around retention requirements for amendments, by-product documents, such as e-mails leading to the amendment, update, or complete change of a policy, product, or service are much less defined. The matter keeps circling back to which e-mail items can be deleted. If your organization has a retention schedule, this determination is easier to make. Then, if in the process of E-discovery (see Ontario Bar defining cases) it can be demonstrated that you deleted items in accordance with the schedule or policy, you should be okay. Wilful destruction of e-mail messages, as evidenced by recent events in the offices of Canadian politicians, is not acceptable.

Storage is Cheap, but…

Given the potential complexity of determining what to keep and what to delete, one might ask why organizations don’t simply keep everything. Storage is relatively cheap and advanced full-text search engines can quickly index vast amounts of content to aid retrieval and make it easier to find an e-mail message than a paper record. Indeed, many organizations do choose this quick and easy approach to records retention. However, such organizations open themselves to vulnerabilities and/or liabilities if items have been deleted in the absence of a retention schedule or retained longer than necessary – making them subject to e-discovery. The Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM), defines e-discovery ascabnet “…the process of discovery in civil litigation that is carried out in electronic formats. It encompasses what most often is referred to as electronically stored information, or ESI…” ESI includes e-mail messages. Accumulating massive amounts of e-mail messages makes e-discovery more time-consuming, more expensive, and more difficult. It also exposes the organization to liabilities of which it may not be aware. On a very practical level, the challenge of deciding to create or amend records policies to include e-mail messages and other electronic information (e.g., chat messages, postings on social media, etc.) can seem daunting. But the organization and its staff will benefit from the resulting clarity, guidance, and consistency in information management practice.

Archiving Presents its own Challenges

Archiving electronic records for long-term storage and access introduces additional challenges – challenges that apply to e-mail messages as well. If e-mail messages are to be archived, what technology should be used, and where should the messages be stored? Should individuals be permitted to do their own archiving or is an automatic archiving solution more appropriate? With all these questions, the main underlying considerations are long-term accessibility and security. You may recall WordPro or WordPerfect? These are examples of software used in the past by the Canadian government in different departments – and they can’t be accessed now. An archived record, of course, should be accessible. Likewise, with security, records must be intact. Access rules are usually necessary. Messages need to be protected from editing. If they were encrypted for original transmission, is that e-mail fully backed-up and again retrievable?

Final Thoughts

In the end, it is essential you have provisions in place that clearly define your organization’s e-mail record keeping policy. Even if the recent actions of some politicians and their staff are not entirely illegal, there exists the appearance of cover-up. Most organizations cannot afford such bad press, so make it easier to decide what to keep and what to delete – create or update an e-mail retention and disposition schedule for your place of work. And remember: having a policy that employees and staff do not know about is also a problem.

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