Coming up in the elevator this morning, I was reading the “Elevator News Network” (I am on the 60th floor, so it is hard not to stare at something!). It contained a bit of advice about Email Use Policies. The advice: Do not allow personal emails before noon, so as to ensure your employees’ most productive hours of the day are spent on work. Really?!?

In my view, policies are worse than useless when they simply cannot be followed. No one is going to tell me that I cannot send a personal email before noon. Well, they can try, but I am not likely to listen. I suppose that if I was really paranoid that Big Brother would punish me for not following the no-personal-email-before-noon policy, I would send the emails from a personal email address or text from my phone (neither of which options would increase my work productivity).

Despite my rejection of the Elevator News advice this morning, I do think that it is worthwhile to attempt to curtail the accumulation of personal emails on company servers. Herein are my best practices recommendations for designing and implementing an email use policy

The E-mail Policy Challenge

It is crucial to structure and implement an email retention program that preserves valuable emails and purges the personal emails and all those with no value to the organization. People tend to make informal or even careless statements in business emails. Nonetheless, many emails sent and received throughout the course of the day have sufficient business information to constitute business records, and an organization must comply with laws and regulations and with discovery obligations regarding the preservation of such emails.

A Balanced Email Retention Methodology

The key is to find an email retention methodology that neither saves every email nor purges unnecessarily, and is easy to follow. For a mid- to large-size organization, I recommend the following best practices:

  1.  Assign a coordinator to consult with representatives from management, IT, records management (if you are lucky enough to have such staff) and legal to develop a program that is integrated with the company’s broader records retention policy.
  2. Develop a process whereby all emails to be stored are archived to a single location (usually on a company server) until they can be formally considered for inclusion, or not, in the company’s records management system. Have IT automatically implement the movement of emails to this archive after a set period, such as 60 days.
  3. At a certain point, force users to declare whether the email is a business record, that is, whether it has some value to the organization. The system can be set up to prompt the user to designate emails that have been archived but not declared for greater than six months. If the email is not declared a record, it is automatically deleted.
  4. Help users decide whether an email must be declared to be a record. For example, a drop-down menu can ask the user whether the email has any of the following attributes: operational, legal, financial, human resources, payroll or historical value to the organization. Be sure to set clear criteria that is useful for your organization and train employees how to use the criteria using examples of common emails in the organization.
  5. Emails which have been declared of value to the organization should be preserved for so long as they continue to have value to the organization. An annual audit of the email records can be conducted to ensure that emails falsely declared as records (because of fear of loss or otherwise), or emails subject to an expired legal hold, are purged if they have no other organizational value.