Those of you working in corporate land may be familiar with the concept of “document retention”, a type of policy that dictates orderly retention and destruction of company documents over time. It is sheer genius.

Why would companies have such policies? On the positive side, it’s not a bad idea to formally classify one’s documents to see what’s what. If nothing else, it may help assign official owners for them who can find them for you. On the negative side, it helps companies sweep dirty laundry under the carpet, by zapping materials that may prove embarrassing or legally threatening if discovered years later. But where is the genius?

First, there is the sublime euphemism of a “retention” policy that dictates destruction: it’s like the “firemen” of Fahrenheit 451 whose job is to start fires rather than putting them out. (Some companies aren’t quite so richly blessed with irony, and call it instead a “document management policy”.)

Second, consider what happens if litigation begins and a company is given discovery orders. These are a legal mechanism to accelerate the disposition of a case by obliging an organization to turn over documents to the other side. With a document destruction policy in place, a company can claim that they don’t have the problematic materials, thereby avoiding supplying potentially incriminating evidence to their adversary.

Third, consider what would happen to an employee who may become aware of naughty goings-on within a company, and may anticipate a future need for an unpurged archive. She might hang on privately to copies of things beyond the official deletion schedule. But how to use them, should whistle-blowing time ever come? Since abiding by the retention/deletion policy was probably a condition of employment, so she will be fired for going public in any way. Plus I gather fired whistle-blowers don’t have great prospects for employment elsewhere.

Last, what if she decides to publish the materials discreetly, for example by anonymous posting to the net? While this might be embarrassing to the company in the press, there may be little legal utility to doing so, since anonymously posted materials have little legal evidentiary weight. Without a chain of custody, no one willing to publically stand up for their authenticity, the documents would likely not be admissible.

So there’s the genius: by merely enacting this policy, a company can effectively make its past crimes disappear, even if employees don’t actually follow the policy! The costs are too high to disobey publically, and the benefits too small to disobey privately.

By the way, the above discussion is not related to my employer, whose new document management policy seems pretty above-board. It simply reminded me of others not so well-intentioned.