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One day, without warning, the CEO puts you in charge of “figuring out what to do with all these e-mails.” After flirting briefly with retirement, what do you do? How do you even begin the process of cutting a dozen warehouses worth of material down to size? (Let’s not even think about it coming back to haunt you later on.) Take a deep breath and consider the following: 1. Learn What You’re Up Against. It’s a sad fact: The most airtight data retention policy in the world won’t keep a lot of employees from moving undesirable documents to their own “stand-alone” archives on hard drives, removable disks, and home PCs. And as long as those exist, they’re fair game in litigation. In other words, you can’t stop the problem, you can only hope to contain it. Understanding that will help you remember the type of race you’re running — a marathon, not a sprint. 2. Revisit the Old Document Retention Policy. After you’ve pulled it out of the binder, dusted it off, and marveled at its funny dot-matrix type, go through it with one thing in mind: You can trash everything but the stuff state and federal laws and regulations require you to keep (although you’ll probably want to keep stuff needed for business reasons too). So figure out which tax records you have to keep for seven years, which environmental records you should keep forever, and how best to save documents subject to pending litigation. Then commit that revised policy to paper. 3. Involve Your Company’s Brass. The best policy is worthless if nobody follows it. But getting people on board requires more than a boilerplate memo from Legal. Senior executives have to show they’re willing to throw their weight (and cash) behind a fledgling document retention initiative. There’s a lot they can do: hire experienced consultants, appoint departmental “DR czars,” and organize companywide training sessions on cleaning the cobwebs from Outlook e-mail folders. 4. Get to Know Your IT Director. First of all, coordinate with him before writing the retention policy: The IT department might already have its own rules on storing electronic documents. The IT guru is also the best person to give you the lowdown on where all the data should go: where e-mails are stored, how a server works, what the corporate policy is on backup tapes, and how best to spread the word on material held for litigation. 5. Audit, Audit, Audit. Make the rounds at least once a year to ensure that employees are keeping lean, mean sets of documents. Sure, audits are a time-consuming hassle. But E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. does them as part of its regular document retention policy, and so should you.

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