Procedure 7.10.01 - Email Retention


Generally, emails are temporary communications which are non-vital and may be discarded routinely. However, depending on the content of the e-mail, it may be considered a public record. All email records should be analyzed for administrative, legal, financial, and historical values to ensure that:

  1. Valuable records are adequately preserved; and
  2. Non-public records and obsolete public records are destroyed in accordance with authorized records retention schedules.

For the purposes of this policy, email refers to all electronic communications to include instant messages and other “chat” sessions.

Employee’s Responsibility

The employee is the legal custodian of the public records email and as such, has the same responsibilities for its appropriate retention and destruction upon obsolescence as they do for any other public record. The employee’s first obligation is to decide whether an email or its attachment constitutes a public record and then how long the information should be retained if it is a public record. The NC Public Records Act and the State Division of Archives and History are the definitive source for defining public records and retention schedules, respectively. However, some generalization can be drawn to help employees with these decisions. Email information can be generally categorized into four main classifications with retention guidelines.

  1. Administrative Correspondence: This category includes, though is not limited to, clarification of established college policy such as holidays, timecard information, dress code, workplace behavior, legal issues, etc. The general retention for this type of correspondence is normally 4 years.
  2. Fiscal Correspondence: This category includes all information related to revenue and expense for the college. The general retention for this type of correspondence is normally 4 years.
  3. General Correspondence: This category covers information that relates to customer interaction and the operational decisions of the business. The general retention for this type of correspondence is normally 1 year.
  4. Ephemeral (Short-Lived) Correspondence: This category is by far the largest category and includes personal email, requests for recommendations or review, updates, and status reports, etc. The general retention for this type of correspondence is to normally retain until read and then destroy.

Again, the NC Public Records Act and the State Division of Archives and History should be consulted as the definitive source for defining public records and retention schedules.

It is also the employee’s responsibility to develop a public record retention system. An employee cannot expect to retain public record email in their mailbox for the duration of the retention. A couple of factors are working against using the email mailbox to retain public records: 1) The employees email mailbox is limited by policy, which will probably be insufficient for appropriate email retention; 2) The default retention environment is set to automatically and permanently delete emails, appointments, tasks, and notes after 180 days and trash after 30 days. However, there are number of methods that can be used to retain email that qualifies as public records.

  1. Paper Copy: The employee could print and file public record emails in a typical paper file system. However, this method has a number of disadvantages such as cost of printing, the limitations of an electronic search, and the problems associated with re-transmitting the public record electronically. This is not the preferred choice.
  2. Save Messages and Attachments to the Hard Drive: Utilizing the Save As command in email allows an employee to save a copy of the email to their hard drive in a text-based file. The advantages to this method are that the email is readable by many different software programs (not email system dependent) and can be easily re-transmitted electronically. You also retain the email header information telling who sent the email at what time and date. This is the preferred method since it maintains the email electronically and the public record is not dependent on access through an email system.

All three of these methods will require the employee to develop a storage system that addresses the retention of email and its ultimate deletion upon obsolescence. Whether the employee chooses to utilize the paper, archiving, or save as method, they will have to develop a folder system that allows them to track public records retention. One possibility may be to organize the folders based on fiscal years with the general categories as subfolders.

The employee then simply deletes the General Correspondence folder at the end of fiscal year 2008_9 since its retention is only 1 year. The Administrative and Fiscal Correspondence folders would be deleted at the end of fiscal year 2011_12 since their retention is 4 years. This is only an example of the many folder structures that could be used to track public record retention.

Information Technology Department Responsibility

The Information Technology (IT) department is responsible for performing daily backups of employee accounts residing on the cloud vendor’s email and shared file service. However, these are not done for archival purposes or to meet the requirements of the Public Records Act, but as a safety measure in case of system failure or unlawful tampering (“hacking”). The IT Department is not the legal custodian of messages that may be included in such back up files. Southeastern Community College’s email servers are provided to facilitate the delivery of email and not for the purpose of retaining public records. The legal responsibility for retaining email that constitutes public record rests with the legal custodian, which is the employee.

The IT department maintains 30 days of incremental backups as per standard practices.

Supervisor’s Responsibility

If the legal custodian of the email leaves employment, it is the responsibility of the employee’s supervisor to ensure that all email that constitutes a public record is retained or disposed of in compliance with the retention schedule approved by the State Division of Archives and History. The supervisor should ensure that such action is taken before the email account is deleted and the employee’s computer is imaged.

Reviewed and Last Updated on October 19, 2020.