Gossip in the workplace serves a purpose, researcher says

BY PAULA BURKES pburkes@opubco.com Modified: October 5, 2012 at 9:01 pm •  Published: October 7, 2012

PSST. Have you heard?

Of emails sent by corporate workers, about 15 percent — or nearly one in seven — contain gossip.

The trend spans all ranks of organizations, with the lowest level employees playing a major part in circulating it. Employees are most likely to send gossip to their peers, and emailed gossip is 2.7 times more negative than positive.

The findings were released this summer by the Georgia Institute of Technology, where researchers in the school of interactive computing studied 517,431 emails of Enron, made available following the energy trading company's 2001 bankruptcy.

They found 14.7 percent contain gossip, or mention of third parties who weren't sent or copied on the emails.

Doctoral student Tanushree Mitra said she and assistant professor Eric Gilbert used a computer program to spot positive or negative words in the emails. “Bankruptcy” would be an example of a negative, she said, and “great” or “glad,” examples of a positive.

Mitra defended gossip, regardless of its classification, as an important exchange of social information.

Significant research has found it can promote group cooperation and may prevent others from being anti-social, she said.

Meanwhile, national and local experts say gossip can, and should, be used for problem-solving and advancing positive messages.

Workplace behavioral expert Beverly Flaxington suggests managers hold “obstacles meetings” so employees can identify what roadblocks they can control or influence, and work together toward solutions.