December 19, 2022

What Makes an Email a Record?

Dealing with email takes up a big chunk of our day with new messages steadily flowing into our inboxes while we try and get some actual work done. While we may all strive for “inbox zero,” there are some emails that need to be preserved as records for a number of reasons.

How do you know which ones require saving? What’s the best way to ensure they’re saved in the right place?

What is a record?

Before anyone can determine whether or not an email is a record, they must first understand what qualifies as a record in this context.

Information is considered a record if it was created, received, and maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business.

In other words, a record is anything you must retain to conduct business. This includes emails, documents—text, spreadsheets, slides, etc.—and any files representing parts of workflow systems that qualify based on their content.

Examples include invoices, employee performance reviews, contracts, commitments, and final versions of documents. The specific criteria should be based on your own company policies and industry standards, particularly if it’s a tightly regulated sector.

How must records be managed?

The scope of records management extends far beyond just email, but every item in question goes through three phases: qualification, retention, and disposal.

Unlike documents and workflow systems that also meet the criteria to be considered records, emails are particularly challenging because users aren’t already making decisions about where they should save them, unlike files.

A user creating a budget proposal, for example, already chose where to save that file. Someone using email, however, is just plowing through their inbox and must take a separate, intentional action to copy or save an email anywhere else.

After determining that an email meets the business’s or industry’s criteria to qualify as a record, it must be classified as a record and locked down to prevent any subsequent changes either purposely or by accident. This preserves that email posterity, including regulatory audits and any possible legal proceedings.

Finally, each record category should be associated with a retention schedule, ensuring it gets destroyed once the retention date has passed.

Which emails are records?

On average, about 5% of inbound emails are considered records. This percentage will vary significantly based on the industry and the individual employee’s job function and department. Legal or finance will obviously have a greater percentage of records, while IT and engineering will have less.

Emails, of course, aren’t the only electronic artifacts that qualify as records. However, email comprises the vast majority of records because they’re so fast and easy to create, they memorialize key conversations, and they’ve largely replaced physical correspondence.

Since 95% of emails DON’T meet the criteria for being a record, begin with emails that definitely are not records. Most emails are transitory, only useful for a short time, and lacking meaningful value after that. Examples of transitory emails include:

  • Meeting announcements
  • Newsletters and marketing emails
  • Announcements and acknowledgments
  • Reservations, confirmations, and itineraries
  • Reminders
  • Preliminary drafts
  • Routine inquiries for information and response
  • Duplicates
  • Auto-generated notifications

What’s left can be considered as “emails of value.” They may have administrative value, such as documenting that each employee completed their performance review. Emails may also contain pricing, contract terms, or verbal agreements, which may have both legal and financial value. Correspondence related to high-level management or board meetings may also be administratively, financially, legally, and historically valuable.

Having narrowed down your emails to those that are valuable, you can then compare this much smaller subset against any company, department, or regulatory requirements for being a record. If there’s not already a handy checklist for what to look for, request one or build one of your own quick reference.

This email is a record… now what?

Ensuring every qualifying email gets classified, retained, and eventually deleted when the time comes is often cumbersome, which presents a challenge for organizations. Luckily, SharePoint can serve as an excellent records management solution when paired with the Microsoft 365 suite.

Right from Outlook, users can designate an email as a record, move it to the appropriate SharePoint location and define metadata to facilitate its management. Applying the correct retention label will preserve the email in a read-only state, and will make sure that those records will be deleted when the time comes.
Organizations and individuals can also automate this process, creating rules that flag specific emails based on their contents and automatically copy the email record to the appropriate SharePoint location. Start your free trial of today and simplify email record retention for the whole team!

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