Every University of Washington employee is individually responsible for handling and maintaining records (including University email and other electronic records) in accordance with University policy and requirements. Emails are records which may contain evidence of official University actions, decisions, approvals, or transactions. Email is subject to Washington State law, RCW 40.14, which applies to the preservation and destruction of records.
Email Best Practices
Section 1: How Long Do I Keep Email Messages I Have Received and Sent?
Email you can delete
Most received and sent emails have a very transitory value. They have no administrative, legal, fiscal, or archival retention requirements and can therefore be deleted as soon as they have fulfilled their reference purpose. Examples of such email messages include:
- Preliminary drafts
- Routine replies/requests for information
- Emails sent as reference or for informational distribution
- Emails used to set-up or accept meetings
See the full list of content that does not have to be retained.
Email you must retain
All other email messages, both those that you send and those that you receive must be retained for a designated amount of time. This designated amount of time, called a retention period, is listed on a Records Retention Schedule. The retention period is based on the content of each individual email.
There are two types of Records Retention Schedules created for the UW:
- General Records Retention Schedules list records that most offices, programs, and departments have in common.
- Departmental Records Retention Schedules are customized for offices, programs, or departments having records that are unique and not commonly found anywhere else on the three campuses of the UW.
Specific retention periods
Messages that convey the following types of information are examples of categories of email which have specific retention periods:
- Policy and procedure directives
- Substantive decisions regarding matters of University business
- Instruction regarding the implementation of substantive decisions regarding matters of University business.
- Legal or audit issues
- Approvals for purchases or other actions to be taken
- Final reports or recommendations
- Documentation of departmental/office actions, decisions, operations and responsibilities
- Confirmations of items ordered online with a Procard or CTA
- Receipts for purchases made electronically
Section 2: How Do I Delete My Email Messages?
Deleting an email is the first step toward eliminating information that does not require further retention. When deleting messages, keep in mind the following:
- Delete emails that are either not required to be retained or have passed their retention periods in your inbox, sent-mail box, and in individual folders.
- If you save a message that is the last in a string of communications, you may be inadvertently saving content that you do not want or need as part of the previous messages in the string. Try to save only the information that is pertinent to a subject and not parts of a string that are unrelated to it.
Each email system has its unique way of storing email. You need to know how your system works to ensure all email messages that should be deleted actually are deleted. Below are examples of how to delete email messages in common email systems.
In Microsoft Outlook, the "Deleted Items" folder stores the messages you have "deleted" from another folder. To completely delete these messages you must empty the Deleted Items folder. There are a number of ways to do this. One simple way is to right click on the Deleted Items folder then click on "Empty 'Deleted Items' Folder". Your emails will be permanently deleted. You may also set Outlook to automatically empty deleted items each time you exit. If you do, like Pine, you will be asked if you want to delete all the email you marked for deletion. Once you confirm, your emails will be deleted.
Outlook Junk E-mail
Outlook also has an easy to find "Junk E-Mail" folder. This folder contains all the junk mail that you never see because it has been diverted from your inbox. Right-click on it and click on "Empty 'Junk E-Mail' folder" to permanently delete everything in this folder. Sometimes email that you would not consider "junk" is also sent to this folder. Before you empty it, it is advisable to double-check for emails that should be retained.
Section 3: When Creating a Message, What Can I do to Help Ensure it Will be Properly Managed?
Do you need it?
Before creating an email message, consider whether it needs to be created. Can other modes of communication be used more efficiently or effectively? Is it necessary to create and send “information only” emails? Is it necessary to distribute this information to all of the listed recipients? Limit your cc's to those people who need the information. Avoid replying to email messages you receive unless a reply is actually required.
Be objective in the content of your email. Remember that email is subject to public information requests and may be accessed during litigation or audits. Create each email as if it were being published on the front page of the Seattle Times.
One subject per message
Try to limit the content in each email message to one subject. If there are several unrelated subjects to discuss, send individual emails for each subject. The messages will be easier to track, find, use, and eventually delete.
The information you include in the email subject line is the first step to creating order out of the chaotic email account. It is important to be objective and accurate in choosing the subject heading. It should be clear, concise, and closely articulate the purpose or action requested in your email. When replying to email, try to avoid including a long email “thread” in your response.
Stick to the subject when forwarding
When forwarding email, review the original subject headings and make sure it applies to the response that you are sending. Too often, people continue to use a string of email messages with the same subject line, even though the topic of the messages has changed. This makes it difficult to properly categorize email messages for deletion.
Outlook can be set to not include the original message in your reply. At the top of your email inbox click Tools>Options>Email options. You can choose to change the automatic response to “Do not include original message” when replying or forwarding messages.
Section 4: What Do I Do With All My Email?
Once you open an email message, decide what you are going to do with it before you close it.
Can information be found elsewhere (for example, on an internal or external Web site or another network resource)? If so, delete it. Delete email messages after information is distributed. Consider whether you will refer to the information again. Are you required to keep it? For most UW employees, approximately 70 to 80 percent of email messages can be deleted because the information can be found in other places or because the information is transitory.
Try to handle each email message only once before taking action. If you can respond or take specific action in two minutes or less – do it. (File, respond, make a call, etc.). About 30 percent of your email can probably be addressed in this manner.
Email messages requesting information or an action are not always directed to the appropriate person. After reading a message determine whether you need to respond to it, or whether it you should delegate it to someone who is better placed to respond to it.
If a response or specific action will take more than two minutes of dedicated time – defer it. If you are working in Outlook take advantage of the ability to flag messages that you chose to defer. Using the proper tools to flag or label email messages can help you find them later so that you can determine whether action is still required. You can also add email messages to your “To Do” list by dragging the message to your "Tasks" list.
Create folders that are logically aligned with the way in which business is conducted for you office such as projects, transactions, standing meetings, budgets, and employees. Place all email requiring retention that is related to a project, transaction, or meeting in the appropriate folder. Try to parallel or associate your paper based filing system with the email folder system.
Section 5: How Do I Manage the Email I Have to Keep?
If you currently sort your stored email messages, you might find some of the following suggestions helpful.
Managing by Folders
A folder for each project
Make a folder for each project (that will require retention of some records for a specified period of time). Put all email related to this project into this single folder. (Use your email client's search function to help you find messages within it.) Remember to check both your inbox and sent mail folder for these emails. When the project is complete, note the date of the termination of the records retention period and retain the entire folder until that time.
Clear folder titles
Email folder titles should be clear, concise, and relate directly to the emails that will reside in the folder. Many times, the title can be taken directly from the email subject line. It might help if once the project or function is completed; the retention period is noted in the folder title.
(Note: All records pertaining to that project may be kept with the folder, even if some of them have a shorter retention period.)
A folder for each transaction record
Make a folder for each type of transaction record. That is, if you collect time sheet information through email, you might have a timesheet folder. At the end of each year, you can dispose of records within the folder that are older than the required retention period. Or you could choose to start a new folder for each year, and then dispose of the oldest folder at the appropriate time.
A folder for each standing meeting
Make a folder for each standing meeting and store the minutes in that folder. At the end of each year, dispose of the records that are beyond their records retention period. (Your email client allows you to sort on date and hence have the oldest records all together.)
Maintain function-specific folders. Creating a folder for statistics can be a helpful resource when making a budget request, compiling reports, or during Accreditation. Folders could be created to house monthly or annual statistics.
Creating subfolders is a very useful way to easily find information. A folder could be called "Budget Files" and subfolders could be named for each budget with which you work. A folder could be called "Time Sheets" and the title of each subfolder could be comprised of the name of each employee whose timesheet you collect or approve.
Separate transitory email
Email that is transitory and is only being kept for reference purposes can be placed in one or two folders and sorted at the end of each year by topic or date to make it easier to delete.
To help manage sent mail, cc: yourself on messages which must be kept to meet their retention periods and manage them with your other incoming mail. Your sent mail folder will then contain only duplicates and messages of transitory value, and can be purged regularly.
Archive folders can be created for groups of emails related to the same topic or function that have been designated archival in the General Records Retention Schedule. (Archival records are retained permanently and sent to the University Archives for permanent preservation. The Archives collects not only the historical records of the University, but also records or email that have permanent legal, financial, or administrative value. The University Archivist decides what is Archival and what is not.)
Search and Sort Functions
If you don’t like to use folders, the odds are that your email client will allow you to search, sort and tag the emails in your inbox and sent-mail box.
Search and sort functions are useful for locating and grouping specific messages that have characteristics in common. They may be to or from a single individual/group, or they may relate to a specific type of action or event (budget approvals/transactions or meeting minutes).
To search in Outlook, click on the folder you would like to search (all the files in the folder will be listed), enter the search term in the “search box” and press the return key.
Outlook’s search “options” also allow you to search all folders and include the Deleted Items folder in your search. You can access “search options” by clicking on the “search pane menu” down arrow next to the search box. Be prepared to wait if you have a large number of emails in your mail box. You can refine the criteria of your search (dates, to/from, etc.) by opening the search box “query builder” clicking on the set of double arrows at the far right of the search box.
Regardless of whether you use folders or keep your emails in your inbox, when trying to organize your email there are some built-in tools that can help you.
- Customized virtual search folders may be useful for locating specific and/or un-organized emails, particularly in response to public records requests and e-discovery.
- Flagging messages may be useful for organizing messages for filing, retrieving, keeping or deleting.
- Color coding messages may be useful for organizing messages for filing, retrieving, keeping, or deleting. Outlook allows you to tag individual emails in a single category with a specific color or your choice.
- Messages containing information that must be kept for a specific retention period might be color coded based on their retention period (for example: green for delete after admin use, yellow for six months, blue for 2 years, red for archival, etc.)
Collaborate Via the Web
Finally, consider setting up a wiki or SharePoint site for a project or standing meeting rather than using email. A wiki or SharePoint site gathers all the information, written and received, by its users in one location. It allows all users to comment directly on drafts, see all drafts in one place, and communicate with each other. Create all drafts, notes, plans, meeting minutes, etc on the wiki or SharePoint site. Retain the site for the required number of years and then either delete it or transfer it to the University Archives (as directed by a UW retention schedule). Remember though that such sites are also subject to Public Records Requests, and litigation.
Section 6: If You Are a Manager
If you are a manager you might want to:
- Schedule a quarterly or yearly records cleanup time for your office.
- Maintain in your new employee checklist a reminder to orient them to records responsibilities.
- Establish an office procedure for setting up email accounts that allows access to email by other(s) in the office in case of absence.
- Establish general email protocols which ensure that everyone in the office is managing their email in the same way.
When an employee separates from employment:
- Supervisors or administrators are responsible for managing records that are associated with a separated employee in accordance with UW policies and procedures.
- The employee’s manager, supervisor, or unit administrator should work with an employee to develop a plan for determining which email messages should be preserved for business reasons or in accordance with University Records Retention Schedules and which records may be deleted.
- Arrangements should be made to either transfer the email that must be retained to another employee.
Note: To allow time for the department to appropriately transfer ownership or dispose of the records, systems administrators must establish procedures to assure that email and other electronic records associated with a separated employee are not automatically deleted before the end of one year after the employee’s separation.