Document Retention Guidelines: Public vs. Private

One of the major obstacles to doing business in the United States is dealing with the amount of paperwork that is associated with large organizations. Both private businesses and public organizations may be legally required to keep many kinds of paperwork available on a long-term basis. Good data and document management is crucial to meet these requirements. Without a comprehensive strategy, your organization could end up out of compliance with Federal regulations for document retention.

Types of Records in Need of Retention

Private sector organizations are required to keep payroll records for a minimum of 3 years. This is trivial compared to the requirements for public organizations. Federal government organizations are required to keep hiring records for 2 years after a hiring decision has been made. Personnel records must be retained for 7 years. Medical/benefits records must be kept for at least 6 years, though in certain situations, medical records must be kept available for 30 years after the employee in question leaves the organization.

Legal requirements are not the only factor affecting your document retention policy. Keeping certain documents accessible may protect your organization or employees in the event of a lawsuit. Having documents such as performance reviews or safety certifications on file could support your case. Careless data and document management is inexcusable in today’s lawsuit-ridden climate.

Storage and Security Considerations

Storing, maintaining and accessing thousands or even millions of pages of documents is a monumental task. If you choose to keep physical files, storage and access control are the primary concerns. These files need to be stored in a climate-controlled facility. The documents stored could often be of a confidential or sensitive nature; there must be a system in place to ensure that unauthorized persons cannot access the documents.  If you choose to scan paper documents and store them electronically, storage space should not be an issue, but there are other concerns. For safety, you should maintain multiple backups of your files in separate locations; it is essential that these copies stay in sync when new documents are added or corrections are made. The format records are stored in is another concern. Documents that are stored on outdated media and cannot be accessed are useless. Documents saved in a proprietary format, dependent on a software package that may not even exist in 10 years, are just as useless.


Managing data and documents is a complex challenge, but both private businesses and public organizations must meet this challenge to meet legal requirements and to protect themselves against litigation. There are obstacles, but they can be overcome with careful research and planning. Consider your data and document management options today.

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