How and When Can You Destroy Physical and Electronic Records?

June 19, 2020

If you work in a field where records play an essential role, the phrase ‘destruction of records’ probably brings a shiver to your spine. The idea of a vital record like a contract going missing or a compliance document being accidentally shredded is terrifying. However, if you work in records management, it probably causes you to tense up for a different reason.

While it may sound like something to be avoided at all costs, records and document destruction is a part of the records lifecycle. As the final stage of the lifecycle, it defines every other aspect and leaves no room for errors. Most records retention programs will have the destruction of records built into the process. 

Why Destroy Records?

If records are so essential to an organization, then why destroy them? There are a number of reasons that you may find yourself needing to destroy a record. Here are some of the most common ones:


With electronic records becoming increasingly common, this is less of an issue these days. However, many businesses still rely on physical records in their day to day operations and physical records mean storage space.


While more often than not complying with regulations will mean preserving specific records, sometimes it also requires the destruction of them. It is important to be aware of this aspect of any regulations that govern your industry.


Some records may contain sensitive personally identifiable information. In some cases, customers or other people that you hold records on may be able to request the destruction of any records pertaining to them.

Legal Rulings

After a judgment has been made in favor of the plaintiff in a court case involving intellectual property, it will most likely be required that the defendant destroy all records pertaining to the plaintiff’s IP.

The Right Side of the Law

Not only is the destruction of records that no longer need to be maintained a part of records management best practice, it is also something that is often governed by the law. From legal rulings that require the destruction of records to regulations that require certain records to not be destroyed before a certain date, you cannot destroy records without understanding the legal reasons and implications. Unfortunately, there is no easy cheat sheet that can be applied across industries.

Some records in certain industries will need to be maintained until the business is no longer operational. Others can be disposed of almost immediately, as long as it is done properly. There are far too many regulations and laws that dictate when and how records can or must be destroyed for us to list here. When implementing a record retention schedule, it is essential that you gain a clear understanding of the requirements for your industry and put the right processes in place. Alternatively, you can use a good record management platform that will allow you to tag record types and will set a retention and disposition schedule automatically for you.

Procedures for Destruction of Records

There are no general rules on how records should be destroyed. When looking to understand how the record destruction process should be handled, it is best to refer to the official documentation of any regulation that governs your industry’s documentation practices. However, even in specific cases, most regulations do not prescribe a particular method of destruction.

Usually, the primary requirement is just that the record is fully destroyed in a secure way. This means that the destroyed record is not recoverable in any way and was destroyed by an authorized person without any risk of the record being duplicated, lost, or stolen during the destruction process. There are several options available. Naturally, the options are very different when dealing with physical or electronic records.

Destruction of Physical Records

Physical records can be destroyed in a number of ways, depending on whether or not they contain any confidential or sensitive information. For records that do not contain any sensitive information, they can generally just be recycled or disposed of through the normal waste disposal options. These records will often be time-sensitive records that may be relative to potential legal cases but, once past their disposition date, are no longer of any significance.

When it comes to disposing of records that are considered confidential, or which have specific guidelines for destruction due to regulation, greater care must be taken to ensure that the records are destroyed in such a way that they do not pose a legal threat or any other risk to the business or organization. The most common options are:

  • Shredding
  • Pulping
  • Incineration
  • Pulverizing

To ensure proper destruction of physical records, it is often the safest option to contract your record destruction out to a certified company that specializes in the destruction of records. This is particularly true if you have large numbers of records to destroy on a regular basis. They will often be able to advise you on the best method for your compliance needs and budget.

Destruction of Electronic Records

You may think that destroying electronic records would be much simpler. A quick press of the delete key and you’re done. In reality, electronic records are actually far more recoverable than physical records. Again, the method of destruction will depend on the sensitivity of the data. For less sensitive records where you are just looking to free up storage space, a simple deletion will usually suffice. For more sensitive records, there are three primary methods available.

  1. Overwriting: A method where 1s and 0s are written over the data, rather than simply deleting it. This makes recovery much more difficult, but not impossible.
  2. Degaussing: Degaussing involves using strong magnetic fields to fully erase all data on a storage drive. This method is almost completely secure, assuming it is done correctly.
  3. Physical Destruction: The complete physical destruction of a storage device via shredding or incineration is the most secure way to ensure that data is not recoverable.

Common Record Destruction Mistakes

While there is no guide to how to correctly dispose of any and all records, there are common pitfalls that occur across most businesses and industries. By understanding what potential mistakes await you in the records destruction process, you can better prepare and protect yourself and your business against potential fines or unnecessary litigation.

  1. Not following  a retention and disposition schedule Having a schedule in place is the first step, but it is useless if it is not adhered to. Proper monitoring of your records’ disposition dates, ideally through automated software, is essential to avoiding unnecessary liability exposure and minimizing waste.
  2. Relying on in-house disposal If you are just shredding a few non-sensitive documents, then the office shredder is fine. However, if you have significant recurring paper record disposal needs, a dedicated service is much more cost-efficient and secure.
  3. Overlooking electronic records This is an easy one. Hard drives fill up with data and files get lost in the multitude of folders. Without being reminded of them, they can sit there well past their disposition date. This is why employing proper record management software is essential in removing human error from the equation.
  4. Not keeping records of destruction When destroying records, you may not think to keep a record of the destruction. However, when it comes to records that must be disposed of, it is vital to have some form of proof that the destruction has happened in the case of an audit.

When it comes to when and how you can destroy records, there is no one-size-fits-all rule. The proper destruction of records procedure for your business will be dependent on your needs, the kind of data that you record, the media that you use to record it, and the regulations governing your industry. The best thing that you can do to ensure you are destroying records properly is to implement a robust records management system, ideally involving an industry-standard software platform that will minimize your risk and streamline the process for you.


Read next: 3 Key Data Privacy Considerations for Records Management →