Knowing When to Shred

Whatever happened to the promise of a paperless world? Remember that? Computers, everyone said, would replace paper thereby preventing injury to forests and fingers alike. But, like flying cars, digital-only documents seem to be more fantasy than futuristic since companies continue to cling to paper documents even after carefully storing digitalized doppelgangers.

There is only one occasion when it seems safer to shred paper than to keep it at hand.

“According to the likes of Oliver North, Sandy Berger and certain members of various administrations, you shred records when you are being investigated,” laughed Grover Rutter, a mergers, acquisitions and business valuation consultant. “Or, as Sandy Berger accomplished, sneak them out in your pants to be shredded at a more convenient location.”

Beyond the expected round of jokes on disposing criminal evidence and junk mail, the very serious question remains: What paper can a company shred without shedding tears later?

According to Cabinet NG, a document management and workflow solutions provider, first you should separate documents into three categories: originals that must be kept for legal reasons; paper you want for some reason but are not legally required to hold onto; and paper that no one can ever possibly find a reason to ever to view again.

Obviously, the third category is the no-brainer stuff such as flyers about last year’s office Christmas party and the unwelcomed blank pages that mysteriously appear when printing emails. It’s the first two categories of paper that cause the most trouble.

The tendency, then, is to hold onto that paper — forever. That, however, is no solution at all since storage space and costs will continue to spread. Which leads us full circle back to the question of when is it safe to shred?

No rules

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules that can conveniently answer that question for all businesses. Every company must develop its own shredding policy but there is a way to make sure that policy is appropriate and comprehensive.

“To determine whether documents that have been imaged can be shredded, a company should work with legal counsel and tax professionals and consult regulatory requirements that the company must adhere to, to determine appropriate retention periods for its records,” advised Sharon Morris, a Six Sigma Greenbelt and records and content management consultant at Infinity Consulting.

In other words, develop your company shredding policy first by consulting your legal and tax professionals. Also keep in mind that sometimes it isn’t just the content of a document that dictates the need to keep the original.

“Although more and more imaged version of paper documents are legally accepted as the record copy in lieu of the paper copy, not all documents can be destroyed after being imaged,” explained Morris. “There are instances, particularly when there is a wet signature on a record, that only the paper copy will constitute the official record.”

But in the absence of a hand-penned signature, what constitutes a legal record?

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) clearly defines which documents are considered actual records and which are not. ISO 15489 specifically defines a record as “information created, received, and maintained as evidence by an organization or person in the transaction of business, or in the pursuance of legal obligations, regardless of media.”

Some good ideas

However, best practice requires you consult attorneys and tax professionals to make the final determination as to which papers are official records and which are not. The answers will vary by industry simply because regulations vary by industry. Nonetheless there are a few general guidelines that can help you get started, says attorney Tom Simeone of the law firm Simeone & Miller in Washington, D.C.:

  • Check any professional and ethical rules regarding document retention. Lawyers, for example, are required to maintain files for at least five years generally speaking. There may be requirements for your profession. Keeping documents in computer form may be sufficient, but, again, this is something a legal professional should research.
  • Learn the statute of limitations for breach of contract and, if applicable, malpractice in the state in which you work or practice and keep any “key” documents for at least that long. Key documents are those that may have original signatures or for which you would want originals to protect yourself against any claims.
  • If any case or matter has particular troubles or issues that may lead to a claim against you, keep the original documents after scanning. You do not want any claim that the copy you kept has been altered.
  • In fact, if you know for certain that a claim will be made as a result of a particular matter or case you have handled, you may be under a duty not to destroy a file because it may constitute evidence. If so, if you do destroy the file, you may face a penalty in any court case, including a legal presumption that any documents you shredded were harmful to your position, regardless of whether they actually were or not.

Once you determine which documents can be destroyed, review the process again before you proceed with the actual shredding.

“Company records should never be shredded until some quality controls have been put in place,” said Morris. “Never shred the original until you are certain that all pages have been scanned and stored properly.”

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker’s published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine,, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).