When it comes to getting ahead at work, some employees like to put in extra hours, show a little initiative or become more involved within the company.
Others, however, are a little more merciless in their approach, and career experts are noticing more and more employees taking that aggressive competition to the next level with something called “ego email.”
According to a Cambridge University study, ego email is when one employee sends an email to another while copying their manager. These emails are meant to flag to their bosses that the other employee has done something wrong and/or gives the sender an opportunity to show off.
This, the study says, is often a strategic move to make their co-workers uncomfortable – not to mention, these messages are seen as potentially threatening to the other employee, who now gets the impression they are not trusted.
“First of all, these findings clearly show that complete transparency in electronic communications is not the ‘Holy Grail’ that every organization has been waiting for to promote efficiency and collaboration,” study author David De Cremer writes in the Harvard Business Review.
“Too often, organizations in their pursuit of making information exchanges transparent consider the goal of achieving transparency as an end in itself. Such perception makes employees suspicious that what they say or do can be used against them, especially when supervisors and higher authorities are included.”
The study also found that men were more likely to send ego mail than women.
“It just shows how easily public emails can turn into a form of public shaming and it obviously raises a red flag,” Sheryl Boswell, director of marketing at Monster.ca. “Managers are smart and they’re obviously going to know what the underlying agenda [of the email] may be. But I think it also shows the lack of confidence of the employee who sends the emails, so they’re probably not comfortable confronting colleagues and they choose to do it in a more passive-aggressive manner.”
Boswell says managers also need to recognize when this is happening, so they can further prevent tension between the employees, as well as prevent any future workplace friction among the team that may arise.
“Undermining another colleague is not appropriate behaviour in the workplace,” she says. “Once you involve the boss, then it becomes a little more of a public affair versus colleagues working it out amongst colleagues.”
If someone feels they are the target of such emails, Boswell advises to respond by email in a professional manner.
“I think just letting it go would not be in your best interest,” she says. “You don’t need to call out the employee specifically but if you’re being called out for something negative, then offer a valid explanation for the scenario presented. Draft an email, get someone – like a friend – to read it over for you, but keep the emotion out of it and do try to present your side of the story.”
But it’s also important to realize that not everything you read is true – not even in emails.
One previous study published by the Georgia Institute of Technology found that about 15 per cent of work email is actually gossip. Considering the average number of emails people send every day at work is 112, that works out to about 16.
However, the study notes that despite the negative connotation surrounding the word “gossip,” it can also be a positive thing.
“When you say ‘gossip,’ most people immediately have a negative interpretation, but it’s actually a very important form of communication,” Eric Gilbert, the study’s author, said in a statement. “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.”
Despite that, negative gossip was found to be 2.7 times more prevalent that positive gossip.