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All the Best Practices for Creating a Document Retention Policy

On the one hand, document retention is one of those tasks that seems fairly straightforward. Depending on your industry, you're subject to certain compliance requirements dictating how information can be created and shared, how it must be stored digitally and for how long it must be maintained moving forward.

Yet at the same time, all of this becomes exponentially more difficult when you consider that the sheer volume of documents your business is creating — not to mention the urgency of those regulatory demands — is growing all the time. This is why a rock-solid document management process is no longer a recommendation, but a requirement.

Of course, getting to that point is a lot easier said than done. Many CIOs have a difficult time with document retention policies because they lack buy-in from their end-users. Likewise, they often have difficulty managing the technology that makes these policies possible. 

But thankfully, all hope is not lost. By following just a few key best practices, you'll be able to create the document retention policy you need when you need it the most.

Fine-Tuning Your Policy

By far, the most important step to take towards creating your document retention policy involves making sure that you get the policy right to begin with.

This means properly defining not only what a document is, but what that term refers to in all its various types. Are you talking about electronic or paper records? Are you talking about historical or transient records? These are all questions that need to be answered before you can develop your policy.

Likewise, you need to clearly state both who is the relevant retention authority for the most commonly used types of documents you're dealing with, and what specific function they perform. Always specify what duration the remaining types of documents are retained for and make it crystal clear which staff members have the appropriate read, write, and edit access.

Finally, clearly state why retention is necessary in the first place. If you need to put a document retention policy in place due to HIPAA, for example, understand that those requirements change all the time so your policy will need to be reviewed on a regular basis to make sure it remains up to date.

Managing Stakeholder Interests

All the while, you'll need to balance all stakeholder interests including your end users, your legal department, and your IT team. There's a fine line to walk between the storage needs of your end users and your retention guidelines, for example. Each key stakeholder will have specific issues they want to address with this policy, which is why you need to practice solid communication before and during the phases of its development. Try to give equal weight to all of their needs to guarantee maximum buy-in later on.

It's About the Long Game

Likewise, you need to recognize that document retention policies are all about covering requirements over a long period of time. This means that there will likely come a day when documents stored in electronic form must be updated or transitioned from one platform to another. Because of that, the IT team in charge of your document retention policy must stay in-the-loop about any technology innovation that would force a business decision about whether those retained documents need to be transitioned over to a new platform.

Making That Policy Work for You

Finally, you need to understand that a document retention policy is about a lot more than just avoiding legal obstacles. If you ever get into a disagreement with a vendor over fees that are to be paid out if certain conditions are met, for example, it will be easier to prove your side of the argument if you've been retaining all executive emails. 

This is another one of the major reasons why a quality document retention policy is so important — it can also help provide a much-needed strategic advantage, and more often than you think. 

In the end, understand that developing a document retention policy is never something that you "do once and forget about." The types of regulations that you're subject to are likely to change over time, which means that your policy needs to be fluid enough to change right along with them. Likewise, your business needs will likely evolve and all policies — including those pertaining to document retention — will need to be able to do the same.

But provided that you follow the best practices outlined above, you'll have everything you need to develop the type of holistic document retention policy that works for you.