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.
“Without realizing it, they’ll wind up with action plans,” said Flaxington, author of the new book “Make Your SHIFT: The Five Most Powerful Moves You Can Make to Get Where YOU Want to Go.”
“Too many leaders don’t want to hear problems, but people gossip for a reason,” she said.
“Rather than being punitive — and shutting down gossip, managers should view it as an indicator of difficulty, help people explain what’s wrong and give them tools to manage it.”
Oklahoma City human resources expert Gayla Sherry advises employers have written policies banning malicious or hateful gossip, and that supervisors talk to violators about how their gossip affects company teamwork, morale and customer service.
Sherry recommends managers use gossip as a way to “feed the grapevine,” when they hear whispered news such as pending layoffs, management changes and the sale of the company.
“Managers tend to not tell employees anything about upcoming changes, until they have all the facts,” Sherry said. “But in most cases, they, while being sensitive of confidential regulatory information, can share at least some facts with employees and actually influence the messages that are being conveyed through gossip.”