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Managing Electronic Mail: Guidelines and Best Practices

Intent and Purposes

The intent of these guidelines is to provide and explain requirements, guidelines and best practices for electronic mail (email) messages that meet the criteria of a University record as defined in BPM 902.

These guidelines have a two-fold purpose:

  • First, they are intended to assist University employees in complying with Missouri's Sunshine Law, RSMo 610.
  • Second, they are intended to promote best practices that facilitate the effective capture, management, and retention of electronic messages.

Introduction

Electronic mail systems, commonly called email, have become the communications method of choice for many University employees. Email messages are often used as communication substitutes for the telephone as well as to transmit substantive information or records previously committed to paper and transmitted by more traditional methods. Email messages can contain records, and in many cases, may be the only record created documenting a transaction, an action taken, or a policy determination or interpretation. This combination of communication and record creation and record keeping has created ambiguities on the status of email messages as University records.

The management of email touches on nearly all functions on which a University department is dependent for recordkeeping: privacy, administration, vital records management, administrative security, auditing, access, and archives. The need to manage email messages properly is the same as for other recordkeeping systems to ensure compliance with federal and state laws and University policies concerning the creation of, retention of and access to records.

University departments that use email have an obligation to make employees aware that email messages, like paper records, must be retained and destroyed according to established records management procedures.

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Current Policy

Email is a resource provided by the University to assist in the performance of University business. The University of Missouri System encourages the use of information technology resources to support its mission. See Collected Rules and Regulations 110.005 and UM Business Policy Manual 911.

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Email Records vs. Non-records

Not all records are valued equally. It is important to understand the distinction between records and non-records. A record is documentation created or received and used by a department in the conduct of University business. It provides evidence of business-related activities, events, and transactions with ongoing business, legal, compliance, operational, or historical value. To be an accurate and authentic record, the documentation must contain sufficient content, context, and structure to provide evidence of an activity.

Not all email messages document University business; however, many do. Departments must be aware of their responsibility to manage email records accordingly. See UM Business Policy Manual 902 for the definition of a University record.

Records of Official University Business

Email messages that document decisions, policies, procedures, resource expenditures, operations, or delivery of services are evidence of official University business. They focus on decision making, financial and business analysis, forecasting and reporting, Customer Service, compliance, and protection of the University's legal interests. Departments must ensure that these messages are appropriately stored, organized, retained and disposed of according to their approved Records Retention Authorization. The following examples illustrate the kinds of email messages that document official University business:

  • General correspondence regarding management, financial, operating procedures, or policy matters such as purchase orders and meeting minutes.
  • Interoffice messages regarding management, financial, operating procedures, or policy matters such as timesheets and travel vouchers.
  • Messages regarding University policy or the policy process such as minutes of meetings.
  • Messages posted in an official capacity such as job announcements.
  • Messages that are relied upon in the development of management, financial, operating procedures, or policy matters.

See EMail Records Guidelines and What Is A Record? for help determining if a message is a record.

Non-records

Email messages may have an official context but not be part of a business transaction. Those messages are non-records and should not be retained in a recordkeeping system. The following examples illustrate email with an official context, but no value beyond reference:

  • General department correspondence regarding routine business activities (administrative notices, courtesy copies of messages, and responses to routine questions).
  • Interoffice messages regarding
    • employee activities (holiday parties)
    • phone calls ("While You Were Out" notes)
    • invitations and responses to work related events (meetings and reminders)
  • Listserv messages - unless the messages are relied upon in the development of management, financial, operating procedures, or policy matters.
  • Preliminary drafts of letters, memoranda, reports, work sheets and informal notes which do not represent significant basic steps in the preparation of the record document
Personal Transactions

Any email message that is neither created nor received in the course of routine or official University business may be disposed of immediately.

Filing and Maintenance

Only the official copy of an email record must be filed and maintained in a recordkeeping system. Additional copies are considered convenience copies and are considered non-records, which may be disposed of when they are no longer needed.

Recordkeeping systems may be paper based, electronic, or a combination of the two. If a department chooses to maintain printed copies of email, the procedures must include the appropriate transmission data, attachments, calendars, and task lists.

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Best Practices

Creation and Transmission
  • Making determinations about the use of email within your Department. Before conducting University business using email, assess the business needs of the department and the type of information to be communicated to determine whether email is the most suitable method of communicating the information.
  • Components of a complete email record. A complete email record must incorporate the address, identify the intended recipient(s), and the message content. The message should consist of: identification of the sender, meaningful subject line, and signature block.
    • Note: if a record copy of an email message is printed, all components need to be printed to have a complete record.
  • Impact of copying and forwarding function. Email has the capability of being copied and forwarded to numerous individuals, and messages may be retained long after the intended function has been completed. Keep email free of personal opinions and inappropriate commentary. Never create a message that you would not want to appear on television or in the newspaper.
  • Use of Distribution Lists. If you send to a "distribution list," you must also keep a copy of the members of that list for as long as you are required to keep the message itself. It is of little value to know that the "Security Alert" notice went to "Security Team A" without knowing if Joe Coordinator was on the list and received the message.
  • Handling Attachments. The content of the attachment will determine if it is a record. Attachments may be integrated directly into the department/user's filing system, multiple attachments or attachments in multiple formats may be associated with an individual message, or the body of the message itself may contain information associated with the attachments. In these cases, if the attachment is a record, the message should be treated as a compound document, and the relationships between all components of the message must be maintained to ensure a complete and accurate record.
  • If the electronic message is a record and contains attachments, the attachments must be retained as part of the record. Retention should be defined by the longer of (1) the retention requirements for the message or (2) the retention requirements for the attachment.
  • If your office transmits attachments via email, when possible, consider placing the documents on a shared drive or making them available across a local area network. This will ease the pressure on the users who must manage the attachments, and on the email system's storage capacity.
  • Handling Drafts. Usually, drafts are not retained as official record copies because they do not represent the final, authorized position of the organization. Drafts should be purged immediately after the final version has been approved.
  • Handling Copies/Duplicates. Departments commonly use email to disseminate information to groups of personnel. This practice results in the creation of multiple copies of the same message. The official record copy is usually the creator's copy and the creator is responsible for retention of the record. If the message and/or the attachment is edited and then forwarded, the forwarding individual (rather than the message creator) is considered the official record copy owner and responsible for the record's retention. All other copies of the message should be deleted as soon as they are no longer needed by the recipient.
  • Handling EMail Threads. A thread, also called a string, is an email conversation of at least one response on a similar subject. The conversation can be broken or continued over time, or the topic changed during the conversation. After the last email message on the original topic is sent, the individual responsible for maintaining the record copy shall file the thread according to content, not necessarily by subject line. The date filed is the start trigger for the retention period. All other participants in the message thread should delete their copy as soon as it is no longer needed.
  • Copyright laws apply to email. Unless the email has been placed expressly in the public domain or the use is fair use, the user must seek permission from the copyright holder to use his or her copyrighted work.
  • Transmission of Confidential and Sensitive Information. Do NOT use email to communicate confidential or sensitive records. In the University environment, there are three major categories of records and information that are confidential by law: medical information, student educational records, and personally identifiable employee and student information, but there are other types of records that are also confidential.
  • Netiquette and communication standards. When creating records using email, follow standards you would use in formal business communications, i.e. use standard business letter layout, business language, and proper grammar and punctuation. See "Netiquette Guide" for additional information.

Maintenance

  • Maintain a filing and classification scheme that will facilitate access, retention and disposition. Record emails should be filed in a way that enhances their accessibility and that facilitates the records management tasks. Departments should create a filing system for email that parallels related filing structures the office maintains for hard copy files. Filing practices should separate personal messages so they can be routinely deleted. Departments should also establish a department-wide naming convention for electronic filing systems and electronic records. Regularly delete non-record material.
  • Email that is a record must be maintained and preserved with envelope information. Envelope information consists of receipt and transmission data, sender and recipients, date sent and/or received.

Retention and Disposition

  • There is NO single retention period for email messages. The value of email messages is based upon their informational content. Messages that are deemed to be records need to be retained the same length of time that they would be retained if they were hard copy. Because most frequently the user will determine the record status of an email message, University employees need to acquaint themselves with institutional records retention policies. The University has retention schedules that cover most records common to all departments as well as campus and department specific records retention authorizations. These authorizations apply to all records covered by them regardless of the record media.
  • Email records must be maintained in a usable format throughout the approved retention period. If the record is to be maintained in an electronic format, it must be migrated to new software and storage media as upgrades occur. If the email is printed out and retained in paper form, all envelope information must be printed and retained with the record.
  • Email records should be deleted promptly as soon as the approved retention period has expired. Deleting records systematically and promptly limits University risks in the retention of records that are no longer needed and significantly reduces space and cost requirements to maintain the email.
  • Approved retention times must also be applied to backups containing copies of the email records. If the records continue to be maintained on backups beyond the approved retention time periods, the information still remains accessible and subject to discovery and open record requests.

Access

  • If you receive an open records request for records contained in your email system, you are obligated to respond in the same fashion that you would a request for paper records. If you have questions about the application of the open records law (Missouri Sunshine Law), contact the General Counsel's office before your respond.
  • Protect access to your email system. Close your email and lock you computer if you intend to be away from your desk for periods of time and don't share your passwords.
  • Access and confidentiality. Email users do not own their email messages and should NOT assume that their communications are confidential or private. Email users should exercise great care in using email. Email is not confidential. Through an open records request, members of the public may seek information found in electronic files. In litigation pursuant to a discovery action, someone may access information from your electronic files. Under certain circumstances, the University may access electronic files. The University's Acceptable Use Policy outlines instances when the University may access faculty and staff electronic files.

Preservation

Those email records appraised as having long term, permanent, or historical value to the University must be retained in a medium that will be useable for future generations. Since there is no national standard for permanency of electronic records medium, it is not considered acceptable for permanent record storage. Therefore, email records that are of permanent value must be transferred to another acceptable medium for preservation.

As stated under maintenance, the envelope information must be retained with the email record. This applies to long-term, permanent preservation as well.

Reviewed 2011-10-07.