Abusive emails ignite work fury

May 30, 1997

The decline of face-to-face contact in favour of electronic mail has led to widespread digital aggression according to a survey to be released at Staffordshire University next week.

More than half the 1,000 users surveyed claimed regularly to receive abusive emails, known as flame mails, which irreparably damaged working relationships. Almost one third of recipients said they stopped communicating with a colleague for a significant time because of a flame mail. Some recipients were so traumatised by flame mails they left their jobs.

Many respondents said email had reduced face to face communication (46 per cent) and reported less cooperation; greater internal conflict among colleagues; more bullying; a loss of productivity and an unpleasant working atmosphere as a result.

Psychologist David Lewis, who analysed the survey findings, said email was completely devoid of the physical and tonal clues that face-to-face communications provided to help interpret meaning. "It lacks the consideration and thought usually afforded to other forms of written communications," he said. "Instead email is immediate, often impetuous, and wide open to abuse and misunderstanding."

The research found anti-social emails were usually sent by managers to their subordinates (54 per cent) and one in six respondents reported being officially disciplined by a manager via email. Flame mails were five times more likely to have been written by men than women.

The findings will be presented at a conference on workplace bullying at Staffordshire University next week.

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