The messages that company staff exchange are not all work-related. Non-work-related communication does however have a positive impact in the workplace as it serves to knit groups together and helps people understand what is going on in the organisation, so contributing to the general sense of well-being.
Around 15% of emails exchanged at work are gossip emails. But this shouldn’t necessarily be seen in a negative light, at least not if we can believe the findings of a study carried out at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States. The study used a dataset comprising 517,431 e-mails sent by 151 people working at energy company Enron between 1997 and 2002 to analyse gossip in the workplace, a ‘gossip’ email being defined as one where the sender mentions the name of a person in the body of the email but has not included him/her in the recipient list. It seems that these emails, even when seemingly unrelated to a person’s job, can act as social organisers for groups. Such ‘gossip’ emails are exchanged at all levels of company hierarchy but one aspect stands out. The majority are exchanged between peers – i.e. people of the same level. If you allocate a number to the various ranks in the hierarchy and then take the difference in rank between the recipient and the sender, the result is usually 0 - i.e. peer to peer - or 1, which indicates that there is a heavy flow of gossip messages up one level. The researchers say this tends to confirm the theory expounded by Max Gluckman, who saw gossip as “group behaviour, providing coercive power, unity and regulation to the group.”
Direct impact at work
The researchers designate CEO level as rank 6, with 0 representing the lowest employee level. The findings show that employees at ranks 5, 3 and 0 are the major “gossip sources” (senders) for gossip ﬂows up the hierarchy, while ranks 6 and 0 are the main “gossip sinks” (recipients) up and down the hierarchy respectively. Thus gossip can help to locate information nodes in the organisation and so to understand how things work. The researchers used the email database, comparing the names of senders and recipients, and then analysed the text body to see whether a person mentioned by name or a nickname in the message body was included in the ‘to’ list. A further finding was that gossip messages more often carry negative sentiments than positive ones. Using a language analysis tool, the researchers found that 37. 44% of gossip emails were negative in tone, compared with 13.93% that were positive,while the majority - 48.3% - were neutral, which demonstrates their usefulness for information exchange and amusement and for breaking the monotony at work.
Gossip thrives in smaller groups
The study reaches two further conclusions. Firstly, it is more common to see gossip in messages targeted at a smaller audience. Analysis of the sample shows that the number of emails containing gossip decreases as the number of recipients rises. Secondly, the researchers discovered that the amount of gossip is largely independent of whether the email relates to personal matters or business ones. When they analysed an email dataset filtered according to whether the message was ‘personal’ or ‘business’, they found that 21.94% of the ‘personal’ messages qualified as gossip emails while gossip was also present in 22.55% of the emails classified as ‘business’ messages.