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Spreading the Bad Word

July 15, 2001
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Related Topics: Intranets/Extranets, Featured Article
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Only a few years ago, gossip traveled at the sound of the human voice. While a person could pick up the telephone and call someone else anywhere in the world, the exchange took place on a one-to-one basis. The advent of the Internet has changed the communications equation. Today, e-mail messages rocket around the world in seconds, with dozens and sometimes hundreds of names on a distribution list.

That can be disruptive for companies, which can find their e-mail systems buckling under the weight of mindless missives and jokes, chain letters, and gossip. Lynn Hamilton, who teaches management communication at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia, says that our messages can "provide a real window into our relationships with coworkers and clients."

It is important for companies and individuals to take responsibility for what is sent, she insists. Hamilton also recommends that anyone using e-mail conduct a "personal e-mail audit" and "go back through e-mail you've sent over the past week or month and ask yourself…whether you engage in gossip or criticize people behind their backs."

"E-mail provides the fastest means we've ever had to quickly offer praise and other thoughtful messages to a large number of people. It can reduce friction and prevent the erosion of relationships. The real drain on time occurs when we have to repair communication problems after they've already occurred," she says.

Unlike the spoken word, which is difficult to document and subject to a great deal of interpretation -- and misinterpretation -- e-mail messages are usually clear-cut. That fact, experts say, allows human resources and IT to develop concrete policies and work to minimize the negative influence of e-gossiping.

"Workers who spend an inordinate amount of time gossiping online must understand that it isn't acceptable," says Annette Simmons, a Greensboro, North Carolina, communications consultant. "Left unchecked, it can become a huge waste of resources."

Workforce, July 2001, p. 26 -- Subscribe Now!

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