There’s a term for the e-mail overflowing from your company’s PCs, laptops, and PDAs -- a digital landfill.

The Association for Information and Image Management coined the phrase to bring attention to the massive amount of data companies get and store in email without considering how smart, safe or practical it is to keep it there.

According to the AIIM, a trade association with 60,000 members, 90 percent of business is conducted through e-mail and a substantial portion of the information contained in it could be classified as business records, documents that are essential to a company’s livelihood for legal, regulatory, continuity, or other reasons.

Despite that, a majority of companies -- especially small businesses -- have no formal e-mail storage policies, according to Bob Larrivee, AIIM’s education services director. But ignoring the situation and allowing employees to stockpile old e-mails on their desktops is dangerous, Larrivee says. Without policies, companies put themselves at risk if a natural disaster were to wipe out their business, he says. Also, as of 2006, any type of electronic records, including e-mail, can be used as evidence in federal lawsuits. Going PC by PC to retrieve e-mail in the event of a lawsuit is time consuming and expensive -- and if you can’t produce relevant e-mail because it was accidentally deleted, the other side could use it to raise the question of whether you maliciously deleted things you didn’t want them to find, Larrivee says.

“The best advice to small businesses is taking action sooner is better than not doing anything at all,” Larrivee says. “Start doing something.”

Creating an e-mail retention policy

Before you can tackle those overflowing inboxes, decide what the definition of a business record is for your company. No two businesses or industries are alike, but experts say if an e-mail meets any of the following criteria it’s a business record and should be saved:

  • It’s needed for legal purposes.
  • Regulators require it.
  • It addresses a business-related transaction, event, activity, discussion or issue.
  • It explains vital company policies or operations.

“Ask yourself: would we have retained this document the old-fashioned way, in a file cabinet,” says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, electronic communications consultant and author of numerous email books. If so, keep it, Flynn says.

How long companies should retain e-mail business records depends on the company, the industry, and what the record is. Securities and other regulated industries have specific rules for how long companies need to keep records. Otherwise, the norm is to keep them for seven years, according to Flynn. Whatever your policy, stick to it. If it calls for destroying e-mail every 90 days, make sure you consistently purge every 90 days, Flynn says. If you delete on a hit-or-miss basis, and you’re ever involved in a lawsuit, you could find yourself facing charges of destroying evidence, she says. “When that happens, brace yourself for a huge fine or a negative jury award.”

Destroying electronic business records once they’ve reached the end of their useful life isn’t as simple as hitting the delete key. It’s important that old records be deleted in a way that shows the information did exist at one time, should the company be sued or just to be able to confirm that a former employee worked there in the event of a reference check, according to Larrivee. If a small business uses electronic records management (ERM) software the application will take care of properly purging old information, Larrivee says. Vendors that make such ERM software for small businesses include Microsoft SharePoint, LaserFiche, Docubase Systems, docSTAR, etFile or Hyland Technologies.

If you adopt e-mail records policies, teaching employees about them is critical, experts say. Include instructions in your employee handbook, and walk new hires through procedures during orientation. Getting existing employees to change how they handle email could be the hardest task of all, Larrivee says. He recommends a steady diet of communications to alert staff to changes and “if you’re using a technology solution, train them on how to use it,” he says.

SIDEBAR: E-mail Business Records Resources

Want to learn more about managing e-mail records? Here are some online resources:

  • Association for Information and Image Management -- The 65-year-old non-profit was originally founded as the National Microfilm Association and now supports the business records and content management industry. Among other resources, AIIM runs an online social network called, which hosts an electronic records management discussion board.
  • Vital Records Protection -- This website from a group of disaster recovery technology vendors provides generic information on storing and protecting vital records, a subset of a company’s business records that includes many of its most important documents.
  • -- Explains how long a company should save different types of common business records.