Work gossip at epidemic proportions

by Stephanie Zillman11 Mar 2013

Next time you go to tell your colleague that “Jenny has put on weight”, you’re by no means the only one – one in seven emails sent can be classed as gossip, research has found. What’s more, negative gossip is nearly three times as common as positive gossip.

It’s hard to imagine the world of work without email these days. A study of hundreds of thousands of emails from the bankrupted American energy firm Enron by the Georgia Institute of Technology found that an average worker sent 112 emails per day. Of those emails, some 15% were written about other people, and negative comments outweighed positive comments by almost 3:1.

It was also found that while those ranked towards the bottom of the pay scale gossiped more than average, gossiping emails were consistently found in all ranks of the company. However, according to the lead researcher, workplace gossip isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “When you say 'gossip,' most people immediately have a negative interpretation, but it's actually a very important form of communication,” assistant professor Eric Gilbert said. “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,” he added.

Notably, Gilbert also commented that the sheer level of workplace gossip flowing around via email was higher than he expected. “I was a little surprised that it turned out to be almost 15%,” Gilbert said. “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,” he added.

The researchers said the pattern of communication at Enron was likely to be similar to other corporations and that while Enron obviously had a “cowboy culture”, internal operations didn’t differ significantly from most other corporations.

So what can employers do if they suspect workplace gossip is out of control? Shana Schreier-Joffe from Harmers Workplace Lawyers said it is legal for employers to monitor email and web usage.

Employer’s rights in checking employee emails

  • Employers are within their rights to view their employees' emails, as long as they give written notice or have a policy of surveillance.
  • Australian Privacy Acts to do not protect employees from computer surveillance, or restrict surveillances – all the Acts require is that notice of surveillance must be given.
  • In New South Wales, for example, this surveillance is governed by the Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 that imposes on employers a requirement to provide employees with at least 14 days' written notice before undertaking such surveillance.
  • E-mails are hard to destroy. Many people think that if they delete their e-mail it is gone forever. This is not so as most electronic documents are backed up and recoverable.
  • Where an employee has left the employ of the business, the employer has every right to have that employee's emails redirected to the relevant department or person until the email address has been deactivated.
  • Accessing emails from an employee's own personal and private email account, like Hotmail or Gmail, would be an invasion of privacy, even though the company machinery and internet provider has been used.
  • Reasons why an employer might legitimately want to examine an employee's work emails would be around suspected inappropriate use of the company's email system, like disseminating pornography, conducting fraud or breaching confidentiality or trust. More controversial uses of surveillance would be to measure performance or behaviour.


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