20 Questions and Answers on the Fundamentals of Records Management

7 Min Read By: J. Edwin Dietel


  • Are you a lawyer responsible for records-management issues for an organization?
  • You would do well to promote educational initiatives that teach the fundamentals of records management to employees.
  • Among other benefits, educating employees on the fundamentals frees you to address more complicated issues that arise.

Lawyers should not expect their clients to have the expertise of a professional records manager; however, there are some basic fundamentals about how records should be managed that every organizational employee should know to protect company interests. Many large organizations can afford to employ an army of professional records managers, but for the hundreds of thousands of organizations that either cannot afford that luxury or who depend on its lawyers for that expertise, it is the lawyers’ responsibility to make sure an organization’s employees have the fundamentals of records management permanently inscribed in their daily work.

The problem is that lawyers assigned the records-management responsibility for the overall organization cannot be physically available on a minute-by-minute basis to address questions each employee confronts with respect to managing each and every record he or she either creates or receives regularly. By thoroughly educating each and every organizational employee on these fundamentals, however, the professional records manager and the lawyers serving in this capacity can be available to deal with the more complex and specialized record-management issues that arise. In addition, training employees on the fundamentals of managing their records accomplishes at least three important organizational purposes: (1) employees are better able to protect the organizational interests with this knowledge; (2) lawyers will gain a higher degree of employee respect when they demonstrate how straightforward managing their records is when done on a regular basis; and (3) lawyers will earn a higher degree of trust from employees when those employees know that the lawyers are a source of records management expertise when needed.

Below are 20 questions pertaining to some of the fundamentals of records management employees should be asking, and the answers lawyers can provide.

  1. What qualifies as a record?

In its simplest and most straightforward form, a record is data, information, knowledge, and/or expertise recorded or received in any medium because there is a chance it will be needed in the future, the disposition of which is determined by the organization’s approved record schedule.

  1. When and how do I dispose of records I no longer need?

Find an item on the organization’s record schedule that specifies how long that record must be retained and after that period has expired, follow the disposition method specified in the schedule.

  1. What is an organization’s record schedule?

A functional listing specifying different types of organizational records that must be retained and for how long. It is not the form in which the record exists that determined how long it must be retained, but the substance of that record’s content.

  1. What if no item on the schedule describes the record in hand?

The person in the organization designated as the organization’s records manager should be notified so that an item covering those kinds of records can be drafted, approved, and added to the schedule.

  1. What else about the record schedule should I understand?

An effective record schedule specifies which records should be stored and maintained in the organization’s working areas for how long, and when those records should be transferred to off-site storage and for how long.

  1. Who in an organization is responsible for managing its records?

The individual who either creates or receives the record is responsible for determining if it is a record, where it should be retained, how long it should be retained, and how it should be disposed of in compliance with the organization’s record schedule.

  1. How should I “file” a record I create or receive so it can be found if I am not available?

The person in the organization designated as the organization’s records manager should be responsible for creating a file structure for each organizational unit with read access shared by all members of that unit.

  1. What organizational records am I permitted to share with those outside of my organization?

The person in the organization designated as the organization’s records manager should draft a records-sharing policy that is approved by the organization’s top management for sharing records with those outside the organization.

  1. Am I allowed to share my personal knowledge of the organization that is not recorded in its records with those outside the organization?

The sharing of an employee’s tacit knowledge with those outside the organization should be covered in the organization’s policy about sharing the organization’s data, information, knowledge, and expertise with those outside the company.

  1. Why should a professional records manager understand and appreciate many of the details of the organization’s operations?

It is only with an understanding and appreciation of many of the details of the organization’s operations that a professional records manager can help the organization’s employees make the quality of the data, information, knowledge, and expertise in those records as accurate and as complete as possible. Further, with this knowledge of its operations, the records manager will likely spot potential trouble about which he or she can seek legal advice.

  1. What and why should an employee know about records that are “vital”?

Vital records are those absolutely necessary for a unit, department, or the entire organization to operate. Given that most employees are creating and receiving records, some of which may qualify as vital, he or she should be able to recognize which records are vital and properly store and protect them.

  1. Should records created or received electronically be treated any differently than those created by other means?

No, all records, no matter how they were created or received should be handled, stored, and disposed of the same way based on the content of the record.

  1. Are voice-mail messages records?

They are, and they should be reduced to some physical form so they can be handled, stored, and disposed of in the same ways as all other organizational records.

  1. Are there special records requirements for the industry to which my organization belongs?

Yes. A great number of industries, such as banks, health care providers, pharmaceutical developers, manufactures, and many more, have their own record-keeping requirements.

  1. Are there operational subject areas that have special record-keeping requirements?

Yes. Any number of operational subject areas such as hiring, firing, fair employment, occupational health and safety, products liability, securities, antitrust, and any number of others have their own record-keeping requirements. If in doubt, seek the advice of the person in the organization designated as the organization’s records manager. If that is not satisfactory, seek the answer from a lawyer responsible for the legal matters of the organization.

  1. What can I do to help the organization’s records manager be more effective and efficient?

One can work to be a prime example of a great record keeper. Setting this example will encourage coworkers and peers to see that effective record keeping is possible, not that difficult, and significantly beneficial when one or others need the data, information, knowledge, and/or expertise in one’s records. Equally important, one should work to continually record new information, knowledge, and expertise that one learns, or observes in others, while working.

  1. Will I be rewarded or recognized if I invest enough time and keep my records properly?

Most records will never be needed again; the unanswerable question is which ones will be needed sometime in the future. When one of the organization’s top executives or managers has a vague recollection of having seen a record that he or she now desperately needs—particularly to defend or protect the organization—and you are the one to produce it, hopefully you will be considered a hero and eventually promoted and/or financially rewarded.

  1. What could be the consequences if I keep poor, inattentive, or sloppy records?

One could lose one job if one’s poor record keeping puts the company in significant jeopardy, or one could be subject to civil or criminal penalties if the information one has recorded is used to support and prove such legal actions.

  1. What should I do if I see others in the organization destroying records that must be preserved?

Report it to one’s own manager, the person in the organization designated as the organization’s records manager, and/or the lawyer responsible for the legal matters of the organization.

  1. What do I do if I have a technical question about a record I have created or received?

The person in the organization designated as the organization’s records manager should be able to answer such questions; if not, seek the answer from a lawyer responsible for the legal matters of the organization.

With these answers firmly in employees’ minds, any organization will be able to significantly improve its overall record keeping, lawyers for the organization and its professional records manager will have fewer questions to answer about the organization’s record keeping, and employees will be much more satisfied that they are keeping their records effectively.

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By: J. Edwin Dietel


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