When to Shred Documents

Shredding papers can help prevent loss of critical information

When Hewlett-Packard's overzealous investigation into boardroom leaks hit the news last fall,

many people were shocked—shocked!—to hear that the tech giant may have hired third-

party investigators to go through individuals' trash. In fact, Dumpster diving is a favorite technique of

investigators, and depending on the circumstances—such as local laws and whether trash pickup

occurs on public property—it is often legal.

All of which creates the need for employees to shred sensitive documents. Below are a few best

practices you can share with colleagues.

Remember that trash is not inherently private. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that Americans do not

have a right to privacy when it comes to their trash. What's more, the Economic Espionage Act of 1996,

which made it a federal offense to steal trade information, does not protect companies that fail to take

reasonable steps to protect their information.

Keep documents only as long as you need to, then follow the instructions for disposal. Especially in

regulated industries such as health care and financial services, your company should have policies in

place for how long different types of documents should be kept on hand. Be familiar with the retention

policies for documents you handle, and make sure you follow the instructions for disposing of them as

soon as the retention period is up.

Don't shred documents out of turn—such as when your company is about to get sued. It will

make you look guilty, and the law is not in your favor.

When customer or employee information is headed for the trash, destroy it if it contains information

that you would not want made public about yourself. Documents that contain names, Social Security

numbers, dates of birth, account balances, health conditions or other personal information should

always be shredded.

Shred trash-bound documents that could help the competition. Customer lists, sensitive pricing

information, strategic planning documents and trade secrets should never just be tossed in the garbage

or recycle bin.

Be especially diligent if you deal with information from consumer reports. The Fair Credit Reporting Act

protects credit reports and credit scores as well as reports relating to employment background, check

writing history, insurance claims, residential or tenant history, or medical history. Anyone who handles

this type of information—from a large mortgage company on down to a family hiring a

nanny—must follow strict disposal guidelines that may reasonably include burning, pulverizing

or shredding papers so that the information cannot be read or reconstructed.

Speak up if the shredding system in your department is so onerous that people avoid it. Companies

have many options for shredding documents, from a $40 cross-cut shredder to outsourced services

that will pick up locked bins of sensitive documents, shred them onsite for a fee based on quantity and

provide a certificate of destruction.

–Sarah D. Scalet

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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