The Case of SharePoint Online’s Missing Retention Labels

Missing Office 365 retention labels in a SharePoint Online document library
Whoops… What did SharePoint Online do with those retention labels?

Sometimes Office 365 is Infuriating

On March 19, I woke up to discover that all the retention labels assigned to documents in the SharePoint Online sites and OneDrive for Business accounts in my Office 365 tenant had disappeared. No trace of any label existed and you couldn’t assign a label to any document.

What was also weird was that the Security and Compliance Center reported “no data” when I went to look at the retention labels, a fact confirmed by PowerShell as the code below (to list retention labels) returned a big fat nothing.

Meltdown in the SCC

As it happened, the week when the problem happened was the annual MVP Summit in Redmond, so I was pretty busy. I pinged a couple of my Microsoft contacts and learned that the Security and Compliance Center was having some problems. So much so that engineers had to disable the ability to edit or delete objects. Later, I discovered that an incident (FO176096) was in progress as some Information Protection labels had gone missing. Now, retention labels could be called Information Protection labels, but they are more likely sensitivity labels (a surplus of labels is always a bad thing). In any case, something screwy was clearly going on.

Office 365 Incident FO176096
Details of Office 365 Incident FO176096

The incident report promised that data would be restored, so I decided to wait. And wait, and wait… but the retention labels still haven’t turned up in SharePoint Online. On March 26, I thought that something was stirring when I noticed retention labels appear in one or two sites, but that was only the effect of auto-label policies, as confirmed by the Label Explorer in the SCC. You can confirm the same by looking at the Office 365 audit records created when retention labels are applied to documents (the system rather than a user applies the labels).

The Label Explorer in the Office 365 Security and Compliance Center confirms a batch of retention labels were applied by an auto-label policy
The Label Explorer confirms a batch of retention labels were applied by an auto-label policy

Return of the Labels

Retention labels first reappeared in the SCC on March 25, which meant that I could once again assign retention labels to SharePoint and OneDrive for Business documents, but the labels assigned to SharePoint documents beforehand remained invisible. Or missing. Or lost. Or in an unknown state. The retention labels were available and persistent in Exchange and Office 365 Groups.

As mentioned above, labels started to reappear in SharePoint due to auto-label policies on March 26. However, the retention labels assigned explicitly to documents did not come back until April 2, two full weeks after I reported the initial issue. Microsoft hasn’t shared a reason with me yet as to why the problem occurred or what they did to recover the labels. For all I know, the labels went into a black hole, stayed there for a while, and then ambled back out into the sunshine.

Problems for Microsoft

There’s a number of very bad things here. First, losing retention labels is a big no-no in terms of compliance. I do not know whether the temporary black-out has affected the retention period for these items. I also don’t know how many other Office 365 tenants were affected by the problem.

Second, although I learned about similar symptoms from other tenants, Microsoft never posted an incident notification in the Service Health Dashboard (SHD) of my tenant. Discovering a major loss of functionality through users is not the way things should work, especially considering all the telemetry Microsoft gathers about Office 365.

Third, the tardiness in restoring SharePoint back to full working condition is regrettable. You could say that I am not amused. It’s a sad example of a quality failure inside Office 365.


The Office 365 for IT Pros eBook can’t explain what SharePoint Online did with those pesky retention labels. But we can explain how retention labels should work, which is covered in Chapter 19.

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