Under amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that took effect December 1, 2006, information stored electronically--including company e-mail--is subject to the same rules of discovery as other evidence.
What does this mean to you? When a business faces a lawsuit, lawyers from the other side can demand documents relevant to the case. And it's illegal to start shredding incriminating papers, which is called spoliation of evidence. What the new amendments clarify is that the party being sued must also turn over electronic information, and purging those files can count as spoliation.
The rules do, however, place time limits on information storage, and they allow companies to purge files routinely, as long as it's not done in bad faith. Here are some areas to consider.
- Electronic document retention policy: Have a plan for how long and where e-mails and IMs are stored.
- Information technology: Various companies offer programs to index every message produced so they can be retrieved quickly.
- Training: Make sure employees understand that anything they write can be used against the company--and that deleted e-mail isn't really gone.
- Monitoring e-mail: Tell employees that company e-mail is not private and that you have a right to monitor it to keep minor problems from becoming major ones.
Jane Easter Bahls is a writer in Rock Island, Illinois, specializing in business and legal topics.