What is a record retention policy?
A record retention policy states your business’s process for managing documents from creation to retention or disposal. Good policies help businesses retrieve documents for easy reference. They also help employees understand how to dispose of documents properly to protect information.
A record retention policy outlines:
- Purpose of the policy
- Types of documents your business should retain
- Length of time required for retention of documents
- Process for filing and keeping documents secure
- Who has permission to view certain records
- Directions for discarding records
Policies should be specific and clear. Coordinate policies with relevant departments to align retention policies with your company’s fiscal, legal and organizational needs.
How to create a record retention policy
Follow these steps to create an effective record retention policy:
1. Conduct an audit of your data and organize your files
Start with digital files, and gather your internal and external documents. Inventory your company’s shared folders, emails and any other internal messaging systems.
Move to physical documents stored in filing cabinets, mail rooms and other areas where files are stored. Label digital and physical records by department and function. For example, files with employee hiring information should go in the human resources category. You may also wish to separate and categorize legal records, business contracts or financial statements.
Sort through repetitive or redundant documents and only keep those that are relevant for your business.
2. Determine how long you’re required to keep certain documents
Research your state and federal laws or consult with your tax, legal, finance, HR and other advisors to learn how long you must keep records.
Note retention requirements for each type of record in your policy.
3. Outline the purpose of your retention policy
The purpose section of a record retention policy explains why the policy is being implemented and the value it brings the business. Briefly explain why you believe it’s important to store these files. This helps employees better understand why they should follow the guidelines of the policy.
4. Explain what and who the policy covers in the scope
Explain who the policy relates to, which can be the entire business, specific departments or certain regions of your business. Note the types of documents covered by the policy.
5. Write the body of the policy
- Descriptions of categories: List each category and the types of records included in that category.
- Retention requirements: Next to each type of document, note long you should retain each file type and when files should be recycled.
- How to dispose of different records: Outline instructions for safe disposal, archiving and other systems. Policies should note any data privacy requirements related to disposal or archival.
- Detail security protocols: You may decide that only certain parties can access some files or that they may be password-protected. Outline criteria for obtaining passwords and any other
- List approvers: List contacts for employees who have questions about the policy. There should also be approvers if changes are needed or suggested for the policy.
6. Add an appendix to define complex terms
Identify any financial or legal terminology, and ask leadership teams to help you provide definitions that are simple and clear.
Record retention policy template
Follow the template below to create a record retention policy for your business:
[In two or three sentences, state why this policy is essential and how it benefits your business.]
[List the departments or areas of the business that are governed by this business.]
[Describe the type of documents this policy governs]
[Dates or specific years employees should retain each type of document.]
[Outline where all the documents should be placed or how to dispose of them after the retention period.]
[List types of documents with specific protection protocols. This can include password protection or access by only certain members of the business.]
[List names of people to approve any documents or records that employees plan to keep longer or shorter than their designated time periods.]
[List definitions of terminology.]
Example of a successful record retention policy
Use this example as a guide while writing your business’s record retention policy:
The purpose of this record retention policy is to outline documents retained by our human resources (HR) department. By listing which information to keep and how long documents must be retained, we are ensuring the accuracy and security of important records. Employees must uphold this policy and follow the guidelines detailed below.
This policy covers any human resources documents created by our human resources department or submitted by employees. This can include new hire paperwork, onboarding documents and company productivity information.
Employees who access, contribute or manage any documents related to the records mentioned above must follow these guidelines. This policy covers the following types of electronic and physical records:
- Email conversations
- Meeting minutes
- Any scanned documents submitted by employees or external sources
New hire paperwork
Any legal or business documentation submitted by employees during their first three days of employment.
- Two years after employee termination
HR employees must store new hire document archives in an electronic file with a password only shared with HR staff members and the executive team.
Any exceptions to the regulations above must be approved by the CEO or human resources director.
Record: Any company documents that are stored for future reference.
Record retention: The method for securing and overseeing records.
Retention period: The length of time a record is to be kept in the company’s files and storage.
Related: New Employee Forms
Record retention policy FAQs
Here is an answer to the most common question about the creation and use of a record retention policy:
How often should you update your record retention policy?
Update your record retention policy approximately every two years. Leadership should also regularly oversee the retention policy to make sure employees are consistently upholding the policy’s rules.
How long do records need to be retained?
Guidelines are dependent on the types of records. Some records may even need to be retained by a business permanently. Ensure that you consult with your HR, legal, tax and finance advisors to ensure you are retaining records for the proper length of time.