Records retention: busting the myths to get it right

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Whether your documents are electronic, paper or a mix of both, it is important to have an accurate records retention program in place. This reduces the likelihood of several costly outcomes, including: hefty fines for disposing of documents before the legally mandated retention period has passed, and losing a lawsuit because you held on to unneeded information for too long.

Unfortunately, many organizations still use outdated rules-of-thumb when developing their records retention policies, or worse, they base them on one of the many misperceptions that persist in corporate culture.

To help you develop an effective records retention program, we will bust some of these common retention myths:

Myth #1: We can’t destroy any record, ever.

Let’s get this one out of the way first. It is perfectly legal to destroy records provided they have passed any mandated retention period specified by law. Even the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of the United States, which some people think outlaws the destruction of all records, allows for documents to be destroyed as long as there is no intent to obstruct justice.

Myth #2: Electronic records are not official records.

Thinking that paper is always the official record, or that electronic documents don’t need to be retained, could get you into trouble. With the increased use of electronic media there are more laws being created around the definition of electronic records and how they should be treated and retained by businesses. The bottom line here is: don’t be fooled by the format!

Myth #3: All records can be destroyed after seven years.

This is one of the most common misperceptions. The seven-year guideline is not a rule that can be applied across all industries and will have you destroying documents too early, or holding on to them too long. The total age of the record is not always the defining criteria either. Some documents are subject to event-based retention, in which the clock does not start ticking until the passing of an event such as:

    • the termination of an employee relationship
    • the decommissioning of a plant or facility
    • the dissolution and winding up of the corporation.

Myth #4: Our oldest documents have historical value.

It is natural to equate age with historical value but it is not always the case when you are determining the value of documents. Holding on to documents that are decades old under the assumption that they hold some value to your corporation could be costing you a lot in unnecessary storage expenses. A professional archivist can help you identify those records that document important pieces of the organization’s history and are therefore worth keeping. There are often far fewer of these documents than you might think!

If these kinds of myths influence your organization’s approach to retention, it is time to develop a formal, fact-based records retention program. Developing such a program and improving your current processes is not an easy task, but it will offer significant rewards in the form of cost savings and compliance.

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