Think about the process of sending a single email to one individual:
- You create and send an email and a copy of that email is placed into your Sent Items folder (copy 1).
- The recipient receives your email (copy 2).
- Your email admin makes a nightly backup of your email inbox (copy 3).
- The recipient’s admin does likewise (copy 4).
- Your company’s archiving system places a copy of your email into archival storage (copy 5).
- Ditto for the recipient’s company’s email archiving system (copy 6).
- The email you sent to recipient A gets forwarded to someone else (copy 7).
- That copy gets placed into a backup and archive (copies 8 and 9).
- You, your original recipient and the recipient of the forwarded copy access corporate email on a smartphone and a tablet (copies 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15).
Now, let’s say you decide that you want to delete all of your old email because you’re afraid of incriminating evidence that might turn up in a lawsuit, a regulatory audit, or because you’re running for political office (ahem). Good luck with that. At best, you might be able to delete copy 1 and, if the recipient is nice, copy 2. Copies 3, 4 and 8 might disappear as admins reuse backup tapes over time or as the various mobile devices on which your email is stored deletes older content. But that means that of the 15 or so copies of your email that exist, only about one-third to one-half will ever really disappear.
What should you do? First of all, disabuse yourself of the notion that you can ever completely delete your email. You can’t – it exists and may exist forever in some cases. Second, realize that email will stick around despite your best efforts to purge it, and so plan on it reappearing at some point. That means that if you have incriminating emails floating around your company, it’s best to archive them reliably and prevent their alteration so that at least you have the same evidence that the other side will almost certainly have in a lawsuit or a regulatory audit. While the ideal state is never to have incriminating emails, if you have more than zero employees in your company that’s unlikely to happen.
All of this sounds quite basic, but our work has demonstrated that some are still under the false impression that the process of deleting email actually deletes email. In reality, it does delete email, but only your copies of them – most are still out there somewhere out of your control. The best you can do is ensure that you have copies of your email that you can reliably assume others will also have.