Published 9th of February 2018

What is a document retention policy?

A document retention policy (DRP) is a set of internal guidelines created by a business to regulate how sensitive documents should be handled from the moment that they’re created, through to a specified disposal date.

Also known as a retention and disposal policy, the main aim of a document retention policy is to remove ambiguity regarding how documents are stored and destroyed. A key element is the establishment of a ‘disposal schedule’ that specifies how long a document needs to be retained for and when it needs to be destroyed.

What are the benefits of a document retention policy?

If your employees are regularly handling sensitive documents and information, there are several benefits to implementing a document retention policy. The main reason many companies create a DRP is for clarity in legal and regulatory investigations. Should your company ever be audited or investigated by a body like HMRC, being able to provide access to all current documents and show evidence of timely destruction of old documents is vital. Missing documents or records destroyed outside of a schedule can complicate these processes.

More generally, a document retention policy helps a business to be compliant with data security regulations, at both an industry and national level. With GDPR imminent, compliance is more important than ever. Even if you already do things by the book, implementing a concrete policy helps to preserve compliance for the future and can help build trust with prospective clients or future customers.

Finally, there is also a notable business benefit to a DRP. A detailed storage system and destruction schedule removes a lot of ambiguity around what to do with documents, cutting the time it takes to locate them and allowing you to plan for destruction dates. The clearer your business’s processes are, the easier it is for employees to work efficiently. A document retention policy is an important piece of that puzzle.

Planning and implementing a DRP

If you have the funds to do so, it’s worth seeking legal advice throughout the process of planning your document retention policy. A specialist lawyer will be able to help you understand the different legal requirements for the retention and destruction of the documents you’re dealing with and ensure that your DRP is able to help your business comply. It’s also helpful that whoever is overseeing the creation of the policy has done their own research into what it should cover so that they are able to guide the process effectively.

Cross-departmental consultation

While it’s normal to oversee the creation of the policy or to appoint a dedicated product lead, it can also be helpful to invite input from different departments, especially in a large business. If you have multiple departments or teams it’s likely that sensitive documents will be created and handled by different people throughout the company for a variety of reasons. Inviting cross-departmental contributions when planning the DRP helps to make sure that all your business needs are considered, making it easier to implement further down the line.

Identify who is responsible for different documents

One piece of information that representatives from different departments should contribute is the member(s) of staff in their team that will be responsible for different kinds of documents. Having someone in each team who checks that documents are being handled correctly and disposed of on time makes enforcing the DRP more manageable and spreads the responsibility out among people who are involved in the day to day operations of different departments.

Devise a plan for storing retained documents

Working out a system for secure indexing and storage is crucial to the planning of a useful document retention policy. Wherever the documents are stored, logical indexation is crucial if they’re going to be retrieved, either for reuse or destruction.

In addition to an indexation system, secure storage is critical. For a DRP to be worth anything, stored documents have to be safe from loss, theft or accidental damage. If they’re not then serious problems can occur whether or not you have a destruction schedule.

Some companies have the space and means for secure, indexed storage on their premises, but an off-site solution is preferable for many others. Off-site solutions like document storage from the Shredall SDS Group make document retention much easier.

We can’t speak for other companies, but our storage solution involves the option for us to regularly collect documents from your office and fully indexed storage in a secure facility. Documents can also be sent back in the post for quick retrieval, or we can scan the physical copies to allow you to access them online. It’s a simple solution for many companies.

Devise a plan for securely destroying documents

The other critical factor in a successful document retention policy is a way to dispose of sensitive documents when their time comes around on the disposal schedule. Your disposal methods must be efficient enough to stay up to date with the schedule and secure enough that data is not compromised during or after the disposal process. Simply throwing the document into the recycling bin might be easy, but it certainly isn’t secure.

It’s recommended that sensitive documents are cross-shredded at the very least when they are destroyed, however, an office shredder cannot handle the requirements of businesses with a high volume of paper documents. Again, businesses like the Shredall SDS Group providing on- or off-site shredding solutions, working to your schedule, to securely destroy documents on an industrial scale. Make sure that any business you work with can issue you with a certificate of destruction, as this is an important document to retain for legal and compliance purposes.

Provide training for employees as soon as possible

When your DRP has been planned, taking into account the different kinds of documents your business produces, where they’ll be stored and how they’ll be destroyed, employees need to be trained. Ideally, this training should happen well in advance of the policy coming into effect. Giving your employees warning gives time for questions to be asked and kinks to be ironed out.

For a document retention policy to be successful, everyone involved with handling sensitive documents needs to be on board and aware of new guidelines. With proper training and time to adjust, your new DRP can be a powerful asset to your business, helping to drive it forward and safeguard it against compliance issues in the future.

If you’re interested in the Shredall SDS Group’s services that have been mentioned in this blog post, find out more on our document storage page and document shredding page.