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A Guide to Everyday Document Retention

file folders representing document retention

How should one balance a game of data hot potato or deleter's regret?

For the sake of thoroughness and readiness, lots of us hang on to documents far longer than we should. Throwing away any spreadsheet or note scribbled on a napkin can induce phobias of not having the information you need.

Mottos like, I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it, feed our desire to keep everything we get. However, this strategy can easily bury your desk and overload your filing cabinet with useless documents. Here’s an easy guide you can use to stay efficient, productive, and FRCP compliant.

Document retention is a technique that places limits on how long documents should be kept based on the category a given document falls under. Creating categories such as accounting, human resources, and sales leads will help you sort through your existing documents and plan for future document storage.

Establishing Guidelines that Work for your Organization 
To establish these guidelines, assemble a team of employees that will have the most influence and knowledge when it comes to your company’s document policies. Getting people from the IT department, human resources, and administrative support teams will be a good start as these people will likely play a key role in maintaining whatever guidelines you create. Together, figure out if there are any legal requirements that need to be met and then decide what purpose keeping each document would serve. Some good questions to ask yourself during this process are:

  • Does a certain document relate to an important law for our company?
  • What are the consequences if the document can’t be located?
  • What is the probability we will need this document in 5 years, 10 years, and 20 years?

To Shred or Not To Shred
There are state and federal laws that specify a time limit for document retention that companies need to be aware of. Employee medical documents will always have the most stringent retention regulations. The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) all give very specific guidelines. The ADA mandates that employers maintain employees’ medical history on separate forms and in separate medical files that must be treated as confidential medical records. According to FMLA, medical data gathered for purposes of enforcing the law must be maintained as confidential medical records in separate files or records from the usual personnel files.

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