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Four records management errors that can get your firm into trouble

Managing the firm’s business and personnel records goes beyond setting a simple timeline for record retention.

Time is only part of the picture, says records management professional Diane K. Carlisle, CRM. Where most offices fail is not in missing the timelines but in mismanaging the records.

Here she sets out elements of record management that administrators need to be aware of—and follow.

Carlisle is deputy executive director for ARMA International, a professional association for record and information managers headquartered in Overland Park, KS.

Error #1: Allowing ad hoc decisions

The first element is to make sure the office doesn’t deviate from its destruction schedule.

The most common error, Carlisle says, is the “just-in-case decision” to hang on to something for fear it might be needed later—or even decide to keep it forever—just in case.

“Nobody can make ad hoc decisions about what to keep and what to destroy.”

Keeping records too long is expensive in both the storage cost and the staff time required to handle them. It’s also dangerous. Any unnecessary record can work against the firm should legal matters arise.

Suppose destruction time comes for the personnel record of someone who was fired. The administrator thinks “we should keep this just in case we get a wrongful discharge suit” and doesn’t destroy it.

A few months later a suit appears, “and now the firm has to protect that record, have legal counsel review it, and produce it in the litigation.” And that means it has to “burn up a lot of hours and resources” on something that could have been avoided altogether.

Worse, the record could contain information that turns out to be the smoking gun that wins the plaintiff’s claim—when it didn’t have to be there in the first place.

Error #2: Relying on an inadequate retention/destruction schedule

Next, the retention/destruction schedule needs to be comprehensive.

Everybody’s dream is a one-page schedule downloaded from the Internet. “But it’s not that easy.” There are other factors that have to be included.

For example, it’s not enough to say the firm will follow federal guidelines for retaining personnel records. There are also state requirements, and if they exceed the federal requirements, state law rules.

There are office-specific factors to consider as well. If there have been overtime-related claims, for example, the firm may want to set a longer retention period for the hours-worked records than is required.

Or if the practice has offices in more than one state, it has to comply with the requirements in each and may want to follow the most stringent of the state requirements to keep all the offices safe.

Practicality is a factor too. If the firm plans to use certain records for marketing or to track client satisfaction, it needs to set a longer retention period for that information.

Along with all that, the policy should set out procedures for protecting records from destruction when they may be required for a legal claim. The policy might say, for example, that when a claim arises, the  office will move the entire personnel record to some  specific location and will keep it there for a certain  period of time.

Error #3: Ignoring electronic records

There also needs to be a procedure for preserving the electronic records.

Those have to be treated just like the paper records, Carlisle says. “The retention period is determined by the content of the material, not the format it’s in.”

While most offices are aware of that, few follow through, because electronic records include things people tend to ignore. Beside e-mail, there are text messages, instant messages, and voice mail. Any of those can contain information that needs to be kept.

She gives the example of text messages between the administrator and managing partner about a staffer’s performance and subsequent discipline or termination. Those need to be printed out and recorded in the employee’s file.

Error #4: Neglecting the final step

Yet another concern is protecting the privacy of the records during the destruction process, and that applies to business and financial records as well as to client records.

The firm’s responsibility for its records doesn’t end when an outside company carries them off to be shredded, Carlisle says. “It still has to make sure the destruction actually happens and that confidentiality and privacy are never at risk during the process.”

To do that, ask three questions:

  • How are the records secured in the truck after pick- up? Access should be restricted to authorized personnel. Also, the truck should be locked at all times, even when the driver stops for pick-ups.
  • Where are the records stored while they are waiting to be shredded? They should be kept in a secured area restricted to authorized personnel, and those people should be bonded.
  • What is the time span between pick-up and destruction? The company should give a commitment to destroy the records within a specific timeframe. The office needs to know that, she says. “If the records have been approved for destruction but not actually destroyed and litigation comes up,” it has to protect them and possibly produce them later.

Related reading:

How long should you keep client and practice records?

Buried by paper? Time to crawl out and go digital

Model Policy: Client file retention and destruction









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