Researcher Decodes Workplace Rank From Emails

Eric Gilbert, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, tells Audie Cornish about his latest study on work emails. He looked at how certain words or phrases used in work correspondence can reveal if the message is being sent by someone higher up or further below you on the corporate food chain.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now a little insight about your work email, and it comes courtesy of Enron. Yes, that Enron. The company may have gone bankrupt, but its employees' e-mails, about half a million of them, are a goldmine for researchers like Eric Gilbert.

ERIC GILBERT: I study the Internet and what people do on it.

CORNISH: Gilbert is an assistant professor at Georgia Tech. For a new study, he analyzed thousands of those Enron emails. He was looking for social cues that could turn up in any workplace email. Gilbert wanted to know if he could tell if the email was going up from worker to manager, or down from manager to worker. Think of it as the language of the corporate food chain. And, indeed, he found some interesting patterns.

For instance, an email with the phrases: that we might or thought you would, or even the word weekend is probably from a subordinate moving up the chain. They're good examples of what Gilbert says is hedging language we often use with people above us.

GILBERT: I'm not committing to the idea that we're going to do this, I just thought that we might do the following. You see a lot of examples of this kind of hedging in the upward phrases.

CORNISH: As for the word weekend, Gilbert says he was surprised it kept popping up in work emails at all, until he looked at how it was used.

GILBERT: My home number is the following. Weekends would work fine, so give me a call anytime. And what these look like to me is, look, I'm working so hard that I'm even available to you on the weekends.

CORNISH: Now, a work email with the phrases: have you been or let's discuss is more likely to have come from a superior.

GILBERT: Have you been is, what have you been up to. I'm checking on your status. I'm making sure you're doing what I want you to do.

CORNISH: And let's discuss, Eric Gilbert says, is typical management language.

GILBERT: Let's discuss the following, it's more assertive. It's more commanding. It doesn't have a lot of wiggle room in it like thought you would or that we might.

CORNISH: So, what's the practical application for what is essentially a work email decoder ring? Gilbert says if our technology can understand our social structure and the written cues that come with it, it can help us do our jobs better.

GILBERT: If I get a message from my boss at 8:00 p.m. on Friday and I'm not looking at my email, maybe my iPhone should bug me until I do because it's important that I be available and respond right away.

CORNISH: In other words, your phone would see the line let's discuss and shake you out of your Friday night so that you can respond - you bet, weekends work fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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