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E-mail: the Way to Gossip

July 2 2012 - It has been estimated that the average corporate email user sends 112 messages a day - and one in seven of those messages can be described as gossip.

This is a finding from a paper entitled Have You Heard? How Gossip Flows Through Workplace Email presented last month by Assistant Professor Eric Gilbert and Ph.D. student Tanushree Mitra of Georgia Tech at the 6th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM '12), Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Using 'messages that contain information about a person or persons not among the recipients' as a definition of gossip, the researchers looked at hundreds of thousands of emails from the former Enron corporation. They discovered that 14.7% of the emails qualified as 'gossip.' It was common at all levels but lower level employees gossiped the most. The corpus of 600,000 Enron emails became available for study after the corporation's bankruptcy and has been extremely useful for a number of technical advances such as spam filters.

According to Eric Gilbert, a specialist in social computing who runs the Comp.Social Lab at Georgia Tech:

"Gossip gets a bad rap. When you say 'gossip,' most people immediately have a negative interpretation, but it's actually a very important form of communication. Even tiny bits of information, like 'Eric said he'd be late for this meeting,' add up; after just a few of those messages, you start to get an impression that Eric is a late person. Gossip is generally how we know what we know about each other, and for this study we viewed it simply as a means to share social information."

The researchers also used a Natural Language Text Processing analysis to show that 'negative' gossip was 2.7 times more common than positive gossip - although a significant number of emails were neutral. Tanushree Mitra said:

"There is a rich literature in anthropology and sociology on the universality and utility of gossip among human social groups. A recent survey of that literature summarized gossip as having four main purposes: information, entertainment, intimacy and influence. We found evidence of all those categories in the Enron emails, relating to both business and personal relationships."

Mitra and Gilbert sorted the emails between seven layers in the Enron hierarchy - from rank-and-file office employees to presidents and CEOs. They found gossip emails at every level, with the greatest flow among the rank-and-file. Intriguingly, the second heaviest flow was among Enron vice presidents and directors. They also had the strongest upward flow of gossip (to presidents and CEOs) and generated the most downward gossip, eventually ending at the bottom, rank-and-file level.

Are these findings applicable only the notorious Enron corporation that went bankrupt in 2001? According to Eric Gilbert:

"Enron certainly had what could be called a 'cowboy culture,' but I suspect the way they behaved internally to each other did not differ significantly from most other U.S. corporations. A lot of the emails we're looking at were from the rank-and-file, and it was the Enron CEOs - a tiny fraction of its employee population - who initiated and directed the actions that brought the company down. The average employee had no idea what was going on."

Eric Gilbert admits to being surprised at the level of workplace gossip in emails:

"I was a little surprised that it turned out to be almost 15 percent. But then again, gossip is something we all do in every aspect of our lives. I imagine corporate executives will probably take note of this - and then send an email to Jennifer down the hall saying that Bob in purchasing gossips all the time."

E-mail - a great way to waste time

A survey by MessageGate, Inc. in 2007 found that e-mail was the most popular corporate workflow tool but that employees exercised poor judgment in its use, increasing costs and business or legal risks.

Shaun Wolfe, CEO of MessageGate said:

"E-mail has replaced the corporate water cooler as the way to gossip and waste time while on the clock; unfortunately, it's not nearly as visible. If an employee spent hours lingering around the water cooler, everyone would see and somebody would tell them to get back to work. Sitting at a desk and communicating via e-mail is not out of the ordinary, and there is less accountability because the boss can't tell if your e-mails are gossip or work."

MessageGate Activity Profiles (MAPs) provide companies with structured e-mail analysis of inbound, outbound and internal messages. The survey found that whatever the size and scope of the company, similar challenges are faced when dealing with e-mail.

These include:

  • As little as 20 per cent of internal e-mail may be work-related; the remaining 80 per cent consists of alerts, newsletters, forwards, spam and carbon copies.
  • Customers frequently include sensitive data (e.g. passwords) in e-mails meaning that companies must be alert to what is included in the reply.
  • E-mail is often treated like instant messaging and is used for lengthy personal conversations; a particular risk for companies that prohibit instant messaging software.
  • Employees frequently make accidental financial disclosures (e.g. on pending acquisitions).
  • Messages including more than three carbon-copied addresses generally are for information only.
  • Distribution of inappropriate images and videos from work accounts is common. The report points out that these are archived and identify the company source.
  • Many companies use social security numbers as employee ID and these are widely distributed over e-mail both internally and externally.
  • A typical internal e-mail is sent to two people on average, resulting in duplication and increased archive and storage costs.

The report argued that sharing these results with employees can increase awareness of relevant policies and practice. E-mail analysis can also reduce operational costs, and improve business processes as well as storage and retention.

Bradley Young, director of services for MessageGate commented:

"Quarterly MAPs are simple and provide a benchmark for companies to monitor and track improvements," said. "As employee awareness around e-mail policy increases, companies can adjust policies as appropriate. Over time, employees become more sophisticated with regards to e-mail and corporate risk and exposure is greatly reduced."

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