Document Your Documents: Developing a Retention Policy

May 2, 2012

By HunterMaclean Attorneys

Published in Business in Savannah

The twenty-first century ushered in a wave of new technology that has forever altered the way companies conduct business. Indeed, hand-written letters, large desktop calendars, and the postal service have been largely replaced by electronic documents, calendars on smart phones and e-mail. A major consequence of this switch to electronic information is that businesses are now creating and storing much more information than ever before.

Every company, large and small, should give serious thought on how to organize such vast amounts of information, not only because it is good business, but also because it could mean the difference between winning and losing a lawsuit. The solution to this organizational problem is creating an effective document retention policy.

A document retention policy provides a set of guidelines to systematically review, retain and even destroy documents created or received in the course of business. This policy will clearly identify the documents and digital communications that need to be maintained, how long certain documents should be kept and how they should be destroyed. Once a document retention policy is created and implemented, it is vital to make sure that each employee has an absolute understanding of the policy’s guidelines.

At first glance, this process may seem insurmountable, especially when businesses use a myriad of electronic devices across a range of communication channels to exchange information in real time, culminating into thousands of emails, text messages, voicemails and digital document transfers. To further complicate matters, a business can be based in several states, nationally or even globally and can conduct business in several different industries simultaneously. Consequently, there is no standardized set of rules that can be used across the board when crafting a document retention policy.

There are however, some general guidelines when establishing a document retention policy:

● Consult legal counsel to ensure that all state and federal laws and regulations requiring your particular company or organization to retain certain information are considered in drafting the policy. Again, this is important because document retention requirements vary from industry and industry and document to document.

● Make sure the policy addresses all types of business records, including human resources, financial records, legal, correspondence, media and business activities. Remember, even an executive’s calendar from her desktop computer is now electronic information subject to retention.

● Make sure the policy has provisions dealing with both the retention and the destruction of documents and information. A company can put itself in a bad position when its employees delete and destroy information too early. It is potentially just as damaging to a company, however, when documents are retained too long.

● Ensure that the policy is claims and litigation neutral so that it will be consistently applied without regard to whether the documents or information may be helpful or hurtful in future litigation.

● Consider the use of technology to aid in document retention policy compliance. It is also critically important that the individuals charged with creating and implementing a document retention policy understand how and where all information is created and stored.

● Develop an implementation procedure and determine the most effective way to inform and train employees.

● Create a procedure to implement any future policy amendments as new technological advances may warrant policy updating.

● Implement an effective procedure to ensure that all paper and digital records are original or complete and accurate replicas of the original.

The means by which information is generated and stored is constantly evolving, and so are its governing laws. As a result, it is imperative to continue to consult with legal counsel when creating and amending a document retention policy for your company or organization.

Businesses should take a proactive approach in managing information through the creation and implementation of a document retention policy. This proactive attitude and extra work in the beginning could mean the difference between winning and losing in the courtroom in the end.

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