Records Retention

What to Toss, What to Keep: Developing a Retention Schedule

When cleaning out your attic, choosing what items to keep is often a matter of emotional attachment. When managing your organization’s records, those decisions are driven by many other factors, from corporate history to regulatory compliance. Those elements compose a fundamental component of a successful RIM program: the retention schedule.

A records retention schedule is a list of an organization’s record types and categories, with the length of time those files should be kept, and when and how they should be destroyed. There is no “one size fits all” approach; every organization has different requirements depending on business, legal and regulatory concerns.

Good records management processes – with a retention schedule that is thoroughly vetted, compliant and followed – yields important benefits. Among them: better control of growing files and documents, improved awareness of and access to critical records, and effective management of legal and regulatory compliance risks. On the other hand, a retention schedule that is poorly designed or ignored will leave the organization in danger of losing vital records, being unable to locate and retrieve files, not meeting legal and regulatory standards, and losing control of the ballooning number of records.

The answer is to develop a usable and compliant records retention schedule. Here are the key factors to consider:

Identify your records. Do a comprehensive inventory of what documents exist, how they are generated, how they are used and where they are stored. Consider doing this even if you are simply re-assessing an existing records retention schedule. The types of files change as organizations change and the standards they must meet evolve.

  • Categorize your records. Once you know what you have, categorize them in a meaningful way. Ideally, the fewer categories you have, the easier it is for people to follow retention and disposal policies. You might consider taking the Bucket Theory approach. Regardless of approach, you need to understand how your records fit into the needs and operations of your business.
  • Do your legal and regulatory homework. What regulatory agencies and rules apply to your organization? What are your legal risks, and how do those risks affect the documents you keep? Is there current, potential or emerging litigation that will require a legal hold on certain records? You will need to involve legal and regulatory experts, be they in-house or external, to work with you and determine a defensible standard for these records, from creation to storage to destruction. In the wake of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, you’ll likely find that retention expectations are much greater today than they were a decade ago.
  • Assess records in light of business needs. Apart from legal and regulatory concerns, some records will be vital to the continuation of your business. Others are important to keep for historical reasons. As you make those determinations, decide how long such records retain a vital role. The simplest retention schedule has just two words: “Keep everything.” But that is neither wise nor practical. Retaining records beyond your regulatory, legal and business obligations can be as risky to your company as destroying documents before their retention time.
  • Communicate and train staff. The most impressive retention schedule on Earth is meaningless if it isn’t followed. Worse, non-adherence puts your organization at tremendous risk. Be sure to equip your staff with the understanding, resources, and skills to effectively fulfill their obligation to properly apply the company’s records retention schedule.

# # #

Abraxas understands the diverse business, legal and regulatory factors that govern effective records retention. We provide clients with tailored records and information management solutions, delivering the business intelligence that matters most — and we do it more efficiently and reliably than anyone else, particularly in highly regulated industries. To learn more, email solutions@abraxasworldwide.com or call us: 866.535.0016 (toll-free) or 269.226.0016.