One of the beauties of e-mail is that sometimes these streams of consciousness contain that kernel of genius that marks the originality of a successful business. That is, until someone else looks at them through the lens of a lawsuit.

Can’t happen? Ask Microsoft chairman Bill Gates how easy it is to explain an e-mail that seems to contradict what you said in the witness box.

If your server storage is large enough, or you keep backup tapes long enough, you’re archiving e-mail. It may be difficult to index. You may not be able to get to it easily. But if your IT staff isn’t deleting it, it’s in your files.

If that makes you uncomfortable, here’s what you should do:

  • Establish an e-mail policy that specifies how long e-mails exist (usually 60 to 90 days) and what gets archived.
  • Make the e-mail’s writer responsible for putting appropriate e-mail into long-term storage. Have all short-term e-mail deleted from the server.

While archiving can be an automatic procedure at many companies, there is a contingent that believes companies should delete most e-mail as soon as possible. How should your company’s policy address this issue? Read on to find out.

Archiving e-mail is “nuts”
Orlando attorney Ralph Losey of the Florida law firm of Katz, Kutter, Haigler, et. al., doesn’t think archiving is a good idea.

“You’d have to be nuts,” he said. “Microsoft has proven that in spades.”

The U.S. Justice Department continually used e-mail to bludgeon Gates and other Microsoft officials last year while trying to prove that Microsoft was a monopoly.

“If Microsoft gets broken up, it’s going to be because of their e-mail,” Losey said.

While most people consider e-mail an ephemeral mode of communication, legally it has the same status as if you are writing it on company letterhead. Sometimes, those documents should be destroyed. “Unless the IT people do it automatically, it isn’t going to get done,” Losey said.

Follow the law
Companies should be aware, however, that there are times when deleting e-mail is illegal.

“If a company is [being] sued, it should be careful not to destroy e-mail,” Losey said. This is not the time for CIOs to see how well their e-mail archiving policy is working.

Another attorney, Samuel A. Thumma, director of Brown & Bain, P.A. of Phoenix, said archiving e-mail can rapidly lead to a massive amount of information.

“I, as an employer, get sued, and I have a document request served upon me for all documents over the past four years dealing with X. I, now, am required to go through [those archives] to try to see if there is any document that is responsive,” he said.

“If I didn’t back [the archives] up, I wouldn’t have to do that.

“No one would advocate that you maintain every document that a company produces, so why would electronic mail be any different?” Thumma asks.

It’s a matter of records management
“E-mail archiving is not an end in itself,” said Joyce Graff, vice president and research director for electronic mail for the GartnerGroup in Stamford, CT. “It’s a piece of a larger records management problem for the enterprise. It really has to be looked at in that light.”

Any policy created by the CIO shouldn’t be of the “kill everything in sight” variety. Graff said that one of her clients, spooked by the Microsoft case, took that approach.

“I had one attorney’s office that wanted everything deleted after nine days,” Graff said. “Picture yourself in your office [when you know that] somebody is going to come in and carry out all the paper in your office after nine days.

“Picture your mental state. I mean, you’d be frantic, because constantly you’d be feeling like you’re going to get caught short. Someone would ask you a question and you would be unprepared to answer the question because you can’t keep it all in your brain, and you’ve been told you can’t keep it in your files,” Graff said.

The challenge for businesses, Graff argues, is deciding which messages need to be kept and which should be deleted: “There can be some dangers in keeping the wrong messages too long. There also are dangers in not keeping the right messages long enough.”

Create a policy
Graff said the first step in developing a company e-mail policy is to ask the question, “Why do we keep information?”

Some businesses, such as banks and investment institutions, are required by federal law to keep e-mail for seven years, while state and federal governments may have to keep it indefinitely if it is considered a public document. Others have no limitations.

“Archiving is a good thing as long as you are making a conscious decision about what to archive and what not to archive,” Graff said.

“The easiest thing to do is nothing, so left to their own devices, that is what most people will do.”

But keeping everything is probably a mistake, Graff said.

“If there is something you failed to delete, even if you’d be horrified if you read it, if it’s in your account; if it’s on that disk; it’s subpoenable.”

“On the other hand, not keeping that information could be a costly mistake for the enterprise if it’s valuable data that [your business] spent a lot of money assembling,” Graff said.

E-mail on the chopping block
It is the CIO’s responsibility to help decide what needs to be saved—and who will save it.

But making those distinctions can be an issue. People usually don’t like to do housekeeping, Graff said. “Either they make a decision about [keeping an e-mail] when the message is created, or the system comes along behind and makes the decision on their behalf. [Often,] it is a combination of the two.”

Graff has found one model of e-mail archiving that works for most companies. Once that model is in place, your staff can make judgments accordingly.

“So I have 60 to 90 days, whatever my company says, in which to create messages [and] keep that reservoir so that when people ask me questions I feel well-prepared and I can answer those questions,” Graff said. “Once the information is 90 days old, unless I have taken action to put it in the long-term storage pile, it will be gone.”
What does your company do with its e-mail? Can your employees archive their own? How long does mail live on your server? Post a note below or send us an e-mail about how your company has answered these questions.