November 13, 2014

Dawn Garcia Ward: What To Do About Emails

4 minute read

This guest post is from Dawn Ward, Senior Counsel at Warner Norcross & Judd.

When it comes to managing time in the workplace, one of the biggest headaches is email. VoloMetrix, a Seattle company that tracks how employees use technology at work, estimates that at least 15 percent of the typical office worker’s day is spent on email. ARMA International estimates that office workers spend an average of 182 hours each year – that translates to 7.6 days – looking for lost emails and other electronic files. What’s a company to do?

An organization can address email retention via an effective document management policy – one that explains what records to keep and what records to destroy. Developing an effective program, particularly when it comes to email, not only improves day-to-day efficiency, but makes retrieval easier and less expensive in the event of litigation, where emails (even those that did not need to be retained in the first place) are subject to discovery.

What I often find is that companies want to address email issues without first knowing exactly what content (whether in hardcopy, email or otherwise) is required to be retained. These companies believe that email is separate and apart from information governance. It’s not. The easiest and least risky approach to email management is via an overall document management policy and schedule. In fact, in one example, a company simply wanted to automatically purge, on a routine basis, all “sent items” without a policy and schedule in place. What’s the downside? Well, if you need a sent email (say, a confirmation of a contract provision or a resolution of a dispute), it’s gone. Would you take all copies of your outgoing snail mail and simply shred them every thirty days? No. Then why should you do this with email?

The key point here is that email, just like a hardcopy, may be necessary to the company depending on its content. What a document management policy allows you to do is determine what type content you need to retain for legal and/or business purposes and the schedule tells you how long you need to retain this content. These are the building blocks to understanding, assessing and retaining pertinent email and defensibly deleting redundant and obsolete email. Basically, once you extract the good stuff, a company may defensibly destroy the rest (unless, of course, a legal hold requires these emails be retained). In this vein, we recommend the following (which would be tailored to the company):

  1. Start with a document management policy that clearly defines what content must be retained for legal and/or business purposes.
  2. Segregate those emails that are subject to a legal hold.
  3. Consider auto-deleting inbox, sent box and draft emails more than X (e.g., 180) days old.
  4. Based on the document management policy, if certain email records must be retained for more than X days, store those records separately from emails subject to auto-deletion.
  5. Provide the user with options so that he/she can move pertinent email into appropriate folders. The process may be accomplished by “drag and drop” into a network file with a predetermined retention duration. In some instances, users may also have the option to print and file copies of emails and attachments and place them into hardcopy files.
  6. The company must spend the time, upfront, to standardize the categorization of emails so that employees find it easy to file emails and are not spending more time finding places for required emails than they need to. The point here is to reduce the amount of time spent fussing with emails and at the same time reduce the risk of over-retaining emails. The solution is to create a filing system that not only is easy to use to begin with, but also provides a clear structure so that emails can be located later if needed.

Dawn is Senior Counsel at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP, where she chairs the Records Information Management Program. She focuses her practice in designing, implementing and update document managing programs for businesses of all sizes, from Fortune 50 clients to small, family-owned businesses. She is a long-standing member of ARMA International, as well as a member of the Western Michigan Chapter of ARMA. She can be reached through her web site

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