Managing Email Records

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The key to effectively managing email and electronic messages is to be proactive.

Electronic Messages

Electronic messages, such as email, texts and instant messages, are a convenient way to convey information, similar to sending paper mail through the postal service. If an electronic message documents university business, it must be managed as a university record. Not all records are equal in value or retention period. The retention period for each message is based upon the content and informational value of the message, not the technology through which it is transmitted or stored.

Keep in mind that email and other electronic messages are comprised not just of the textual message and attachments, but also metadata (e.g., to, from, subject, time, date, system) about the message and its transmission.

The key to effectively managing email and electronic messages is to be proactive. Delete the non-records and transient records that have outlived their administrative value so that what remains are the records, sent or received, that retention schedules require to be managed. Managing email and electronic messages should be approached in a manner similar to the way that paper mail is processed and starts with reviewing the message’s content.

SUNY's Email Retention Guidance

Most emails are simply electronically stored information (ESI) without a lasting legal, operational or historical value, and are therefore not records. Only emails that serve a legal, operational or historical value are records; the rest should be deleted. There is no set retention period for email because it is simply a medium upon which information is stored. Retention periods are best tied to the information or content in a record, not the medium on which it is stored.

SUNY’s email retention approach is to classify emails that are records by determining the subject matter and purpose of the email. The content of the email will determine the classification of records the email falls under, and retention of the email is in accordance with the retention schedules based on the type of record.

Emails that are not records, and are just ESI with no legal, operational or historical value, convert to a record when the following “trigger” scenarios occur:

  • Relevant to a legal action that is reasonably anticipated as per counsel’s instructions
  • Subject to an audit by university audit or an oversight agency
  • Subject to a public information request (e.g., Freedom of Information Law)

These events will convert existing email that previously served no legal, operational or historical value into a record, which triggers the legal obligation to preserve. Only ESI that exists at moment of a trigger can convert to a record. This is why it is important to delete emails that do not constitute a record.

Appropriate Use of Email

  • Deliver a message quickly and the speed with which a reply is received does not matter
  • Communicate directly with the decision-maker
  • Avoid the cost of long-distance telephone calls, faxes, local or overnight delivery services, or snail mail
  • Communicate with a colleague or customer in a different time zone or country
  • Deliver the same message to multiple people
  • Maintain a written record of the electronic conversation
  • Communicate quickly and cost-effectively with co-workers
  • Stay in touch with the office when on the road
  • Respond to requests when on a tight deadline

Inappropriate Use of Email

  • Discuss confidential matters
  • Convey disciplinary or performance issues
  • Share complaints or dissatisfaction
  • Communicate highly complex information
  • When the message may be misinterpreted
  • For on-going back and forth negotiations
  • When dealing with emotional issues or personal conflicts

Identify, Clean-Up and Organize Email Records

Determine if the electronic message (e.g., email, voice mail, text) is a record and should be retained per the records retention schedules.

Characteristics of Electronic Records

  • Documents a business activity, transaction or decision
  • Proof of a business-related event or activity or evidence of work completed
  • Identifies who participated in a business activity or had knowledge of an event
  • Has legal or compliance value
  • Supports facts you claim to be true, since the person with direct knowledge of the facts is not available
  • Could help resolve a dispute in the future
  • The law requires the university to retain it
  • You have the only copy within the university (e.g., it was received from an external source)
  • You, as the author, are responsible for managing it and its responses
  • If it were in paper form, it would be retained

Email Clean-Up Tips

  • Don’t attempt to do it all at once
    • Start with today’s emails and move forward
    • Gradually work on the email backlog
  • Set aside a regular time to file
    • Smaller chunks are more manageable and less tedious (e.g., every Friday for an hour at a scheduled time or every day for fifteen minutes after lunch)
  • Delete what you know can be deleted to make what remains to be filed less daunting
  • Consider quick ways to slim down your email
    • Identify and delete non-records and transitory records
    • Sort email several different ways to efficiently identify types of records 
      • Type - meeting invitations, out of office replies, LinkedIn notifications
      • Subject - search “name.# and lunch” or “name.# and walk” or other frequently used words to weed out potential non-record emails between colleagues going to lunch or taking a walk
      • Conversation - messages in a series - if the last message in a series contains all the information from the previous email message, keep only the last message
      • Sender - delete emails from mass mailings, generic email accounts, mailing lists or list servs
      • Date - delete old emails if they do not meet the criteria for a university record
      • Size - large emails usually have attachments; if the attachment is a university record, save the attachment in the departmental recordkeeping system
    • Search for emails that are copies of what is in another university system (e.g., eReq, IT help tickets)
      • Auto-generated emails notify you of an action or update in those systems; log into the system to see any needed information

Email Organization Strategies

  • Be a proactive manager of your inbox and sent mail
    • Realize the benefits of efficiency in numerous other areas of your daily work
  • Apply sorting rules to incoming and sent email
    • Move emails to folders manually or via automatic rules
    • Create a folder structure to match your departmental processes and your paper folder structure if applicable
    • Use subject line, file and folder names consistent with your department's processes and policies
  • Use links, not attachments
    • Consider placing documents on a shared drive (e.g., UBbox) and link to the documents in the body of your message to make managing document versions easier and reduce the load on the email system
      • Attachments can raise flags in spam filters
      • Attachments can exceed file size limits and be rejected by the mail system
      • Attachments can use a lot of storage
      • You cannot track who opens attachments; linked documents often track usage and access
  • File what you know must be retained
    • Use an electronic filing system that that parallels the filing structure for paper files
    • Establish a department-wide naming convention for electronic documents and relevant email
    • File messages in a way that makes accessing them easy and reliable
  • Consider retention and disposition
    • Retain emails that are official records the same length of time that they would be retained if they were hard copy documents
    • Retain official records in a format that makes them accessible and usable for the purpose for which they are being retained; if the email is printed and retained in paper form, all header information should be included
    • Email is not private and can be copied and forwarded to numerous individuals or may be be retained long after the intended function has been completed
      • Never create a message that you would not want made public
    • University email is not in your sole control
      • Email sent or received that is realted to university business is subject to discovery or freedom of information laws regardless of where it resides

Contact an Expert

Carrie Woodrow.

Carrie A. Woodrow


Policy, Compliance and Internal Controls

420 Crofts Hall

Phone: (716) 645-1786