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Do you have papers all over the office?  Do you need to find the records of a project done three years ago?  Is the company CEO looking through boxes of old papers to find an important document?  Or worse, did the office administrator throw vital records into the trash without shredding them? All of these questions can be avoided with a little planning and committed follow through.

Why Archive?

Most businesses don’t take the time to decide on an archiving policy and procedure until they either have an avalanche of papers, or they get into trouble because they can’t find the records they need for a lawsuit.  Often the person who does decide on a policy has no idea of the legal requirements and ramifications of keeping or discarding documents. Setting up a records management function is a very important business operation, and can be almost painless if procedures are followed regularly and routinely.

Several decades ago the general business consensus was that we would all work in paperless offices, but somehow that has not happened in most environments. If your business has achieved this goal, or does produce many documents electronically, it is still important to organize and store them safely.  (Tapes or disks in a flame proof vault for example.)

Determining the Requirements

The need to maintain business records is determined by the type of record and the business that uses them. Because having records that are outdated can be more damaging than not having them, it is important to set up a policy and stick with it.  Straightforward procedures should be written and explained to all employees. Everyone must be confident that records will be stored in an orderly manner for retrieval.

A vital part of this requirement is to appoint one person as a records administrator and give them the resources and the authority to carry out the required procedures. If no person is qualified to make needed decisions or can take the time to learn, a professional records manager can be hired either to set up the program and/or to provide services as needed to keep it running.  (If no employee has records experience it probably is a good idea to get a professional to help, at least at the beginning. It will probably save time and effort in the end.)  The U.S. National Archives provides access to some excellent publications regarding tips for scheduling archiving various types of records. Most of their publications deal with archiving the documents used by and for federal agencies, but their procedures and suggestions are valuable to every type of business. (They even have some neat posters!)

Types of records and how to determine archival needs

Most businesses have at least four types of records. They are:

1.      General corporate records—these include letters, contracts, marketing

2.      Accounting—your accountants probably have a good idea of tax and other needs for their records, and should be responsible for archiving them. These will also include such items as payroll, corporate ledger, and accounts payable and receivable.

3.      Human Resources—these include records that you need to prove that you did not discriminate in your hiring practices. It’s important to discard these safely when the requirements have expired so that personal details are not found by others. 401K records have special importance.

4.      Operations documents relating to work accomplishments—projects, manufacturing, services provided, etc.

I once tried to explain this to a corporate vice president who wanted to keep just a few things forever. If his firm was involved in a lawsuit and was asked for records of a project completed ten years previously, he should be able to say with confidence that all project records are destroyed after seven years (or whatever the statute states).  If the suing party can find out (and they can) that he has some records from ten years ago, he would be unable to explain definitively that what they want is no longer available.

The first step in discovering your needs is to research statutory requirements. Your corporate attorney may be able to help with that.  If your business belongs to a professional organization, it is likely to have guidelines that can help. Or you may have clients with certain requirements—the federal or state government for example. At this time, you need to determine what records should be discarded after they are no longer needed.  There are two reasons for this: first storage is expensive; second, you can get into legal trouble if you are careless about your records.

The second step is to do a records inventory of your whole business,  In this way you can determine what volume will need to be handled. There are numerous places online to obtain guidelines for this procedure.  Most are government web sites (with excellent ideas), but some provide access to procedures written by accredited records managers.  Many include useful forms to use for your inventory.  A search engine search for “records management software” yields several options.

After you have determined the legal requirements and what records you actually have, the next step is to create a retention schedule, and to decide who is responsible for each type of record.  A required time to archive is also a good idea. (For example, project records must be archived six months after the project is completed.)  Usually such important items as records of incorporation, qualifications to do business in various states, licensing documents, stock transfer and stockholder records, annual reports, and deeds and title papers are the responsibility of the corporate secretary or comptroller, who locks them in a fireproof safe.

Organizing the Records

Of course archiving does not mean simply putting the documents into boxes with a label and storing them in some off-site garage or other facility. The point is to be able to find them again.  I have found that once a staff person needs something that was taken from him and archived, never to be found again, he will hide his documents so that he has certain access. (Of course this leads to paper and file cabinet overload.)

Firs, determine how you will record what documents you have, then determine how they will be identified. Will it be by project number, manufactured item, client or customer name, accounting codes, or other unique name or number?  Then, decide how the documents will be cataloged. Will you use a database, a log book, or an electronic list of some kind?  Databases are fairly easy to set up and make indexing and look up straightforward.

Writing Procedures

Most people hate writing and following procedures, but if they are clear and easy to follow, the archiving process can be relatively painless.  The procedure must be understood by everyone and enforced. Elements include:

  1. A list of what records will be archived and who is responsible for each
  2. Readying and organizing records for storage.
  3. Entry into a database or other recording document
  4. Storage place and methods
  5. Retrieval
  6. Disposal times and methods

If your firm has an intranet, put the procedure there so everyone can read—and USE—it. You can probably find example procedures without much difficulty.

The tendency to squirrel away papers lives in all of us. This tendency can be catastrophic in any working environment, and it is management’s responsibility to create easy-to-follow procedures, and to make sure that everyone understands and follows them.  Nothing is worse that spending hours looking for a piece of paper.  Be the office hero—find what someone needs quickly and without fuss and you will have a friend forever.

Connie Williams is an information junkie who lives to ferret out fascinating ideas for her readers. She writes blog posts on a variety of topics.  She has set up records procedures for several clients, including one for a nuclear power plant. She has been responsible for indexing, archive storage, offsite document storage and disposal of many types of documents.

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