Almost 15 percent of emails sent at work amount to no more than gossip, say Georgia Tech computer scientists.
Assistant professor Eric Gilbert examined hundreds of thousands of emails from the former Enron corporation and found that 14.7 percent of the emails qualify as office scuttlebutt - messages containing information about a person or persons not among the recipients.
And while people lower in the office hierarchy tend to do it more, gossip was prevalent at all levels.
"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," says Gilbert.
"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."
'Negative' gossip, identified through a Natural Language Text Processing analysis, was 2.7 times more prevalent than positive gossip, though much was essentially neutral.
While the heaviest flow of gossip was found among the rank-and-file, the second heaviest was among Enron vice presidents and directors. The strongest upward flow of gossip, by a wide margin, was from the vice presidents and directors up one level to presidents and CEOs.
Vice presidents and directors also gossiped the most down the chain, with the heaviest downward flow originating from their level and ending up at the lowest, rank-and-file level.
The researchers believe that Enron's notorious place in US corporate history doesn't make it unique in terms of gossip.
"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," says Gilbert.
"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."
Gilbert says he didn't expect to find such a high level of workplace gossip.
"I was a little surprised that it turned out to be almost 15 percent," he says.
"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."