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The Break Room: Choose Your (Emailed) Words Carefully

July 9, 2012
What kind of message do your work emails send?

I once worked in an office that fostered lively email exchanges among employees. From inquiries about the latest happy hour to forwarded jokes and bits of office gossip, quite a few emails zipped around that office. The content wasn’t always professional – I remember one quiz asked, “What color underwear do you have on right now?” Needless to say, some of the messages edged across the line of what was appropriate to send in a work environment. But then one employee (we’ll call her Meredith) leapt clear over that line.

I’m not sure what Meredith was thinking when she passed along a rant-filled email forward that discussed racial stereotypes. Its content was so offensive that I won’t repeat any of it here. But Meredith apparently found it funny and forwarded the email. From her work email account. To at least a dozen employees. And even to a few colleagues who worked at other agencies in our field.

When Meredith began receiving complaints and realized she had landed herself in a potentially serious situation, she fired off a peppy apology to the entire office: “I sent that last email forward by mistake. Sorry!!! If anyone felt offended, I apologize.”

This is one of my pet peeves, by the way – the non-apology that takes no responsibility. The passive “I’m sorry if anyone felt offended” is not a real apology and never will be. More important, based on Meredith’s history of sending borderline-inappropriate emails, no one believed her excuse that the whole thing was a “mistake.”

The fallout was swift and merciless. Meredith was swept into meetings with management and, by the end of the day, was fired.

Meredith had worked for that company for years. She was comfortable in her job, had many friends at work and regularly socialized with management. So she was shocked that the consequences of one email could be so severe. From the company’s perspective, however, she had committed a serious offense – especially since she used the company’s email account to send offensive content to other, outside agencies we worked with, including those that served some of the very populations targeted in the email.

You better believe that the company’s email and communication policies changed after that incident. But it appears the practice of sending inappropriate or non-work-related emails over the company’s servers isn’t so unusual. According to a new study from Georgia Tech, about one out of every seven email messages sent at work can be considered gossip. With some estimates claiming that the average corporate email user sends 112 emails every day, that’s quite a lot of gossip.

Gossip isn’t always a bad thing. Assistant Professor Eric Gilbert of the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech defined gossip as messages containing information about a person not among the recipients. Gilbert found that while gossip is prevalent at all levels of the corporate hierarchy, lower levels gossip the most.

“When you say ‘gossip,’ most people immediately have a negative interpretation, but it’s actually a very important form of communication. 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,” Gilbert explained. “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.”

So maybe a little gossip in your work emails isn’t always terrible. But after watching what happened to Meredith, I’d advise employees to choose their words carefully when emailing at work. Before you hit “send,” imagine your email being read by company leadership. If that thought makes you hesitate, you might want to reconsider your message. Better yet, if a controversial or offensive email makes its way into your work inbox, hit “delete.” You may have just saved your job.

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