Real work: Heat of the moment

Bullying managers aren't screaming their insults across the office any longer - they're messaging them. KATE HILPERN investigates flame mail
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You arrive at work, switch on the computer and up pops a message - "You've got mail". Idly, you call it up, presuming that it's about an evening with friends at the weekend which you have planned. But when you look at the message, you discover that it's something altogether more worrying. It's an abusive note from someone senior to you who works on the opposite side of the office. You don't know it yet but you're the casualty of the latest manifestation of bad management: flame mail.

Flaming has been around since e-mail started. It is defined by someone losing their self-control and sending an e-mail message that is derogatory, obscene or inappropriate. Its use by managers is growing alarmingly, however. According to the software company Novell, over half of the respondents to its latest survey have received flame-mails at work, with 23 per cent claiming they received them several times a week and 48 per cent several times a month. One in 70 said they had left a job to avoid the abuse.

Psychologist Dr David Lewis, who has analysed the survey's findings, believes e-mail may have the most powerful impact on human relations of any communications technology yet. "When we interact with someone in person, more than half our understanding of the conversation comes via our eyes and through our interpretation of others' body language. To compensate for the absence of body language when using the telephone or voice-mail, we place greater emphasis on voice, tone and accent. With e-mail, not only are there no facial or tonal clues, but there is also much less consideration than is afforded to letters and faxes - where the sender will most likely print the document and re-read it before putting it in an envelope or on to the fax machine."

Indeed, the writer of an e-mail doesn't think twice, let alone read twice. They just type and press "Send". The result? An immediate and convenient outlet for workplace frustrations and the urge to bully or harass.

Middle managers are the worst offenders. One in six respondents to the Novell survey reported that they or someone they knew had been officially reprimanded or disciplined by a manager via e-mail. Susan Ellwood, 31, a PA from London, is one such victim. "I was constantly faced with messages like, `Kettle not working today, love?' or `Spelling errors in the report again. Is there a brain lurking in that head of yours??!!!'. Worse still was the fact that his computer system was set up so that each message was copied to all my colleagues, leaving me assuming that everyone believed I was incompetent."

Neil Crawford, a psychotherapist and consultant to organisations, believes that because e-mail can have multiple recipients, it has become a substitute for management within many companies. "And since managers are more stressed than ever - often having to work against impossible deadlines - their e-mails are becoming flame-mails."

The frequency of flame-mails is highest in sales and marketing departments, where 60 per cent of employees report that they receive them on a regular basis. Crawford explains, "This is probably a reflection of the type of personality considered essential for a successful salesperson, and also by the fiercely competitive and target-driven nature of the job."

Although men are the most common recipients of flaming, research shows that women are more likely to be affected. According to research carried out at Bryant College, Rhode Island, general flaming on the internet deters women so much that many have adopted men's names to avoid harassment.

But it's not only employees who are potential sufferers, says Nigel Baker of Lexicon Employment Law Training. "Employers are under a duty to provide a non-threatening working environment. So if an employee sends an e-mail from work which constitutes harassment, their employer runs the risk of being held vicariously liable for this, whether or not it was sent with the employers' knowledge. The only defence is to show that the employer had taken reasonable steps to prevent it."

In America, the oil company Chevron recently paid out pounds 1.3m after being sued for sexual harassment by a woman who came across sexist jokes on the company's e-mail system under the headline "Why beer is better than women." And three major US corporations have recently faced court actions for racial harassment. One of these, Citibank, is alleged to have subjected black employees to "a pervasively abusive, racially hostile work environment" as a result of e-mail messages between white colleagues which were perceived as racist.

Although similar cases have yet to reach our own courts, British companies are worried that we may follow in America's footsteps. As a result, in 1997, West Yorkshire Police sacked an officer who sent sexist e-mail messages to 50 female colleagues. Likewise, NatWest Markets dismissed three employees and disciplined 12 others for distributing pornography via e-mail.

Anne-Marie Thompson, an expert in employment law at Eversheds, a firm of solicitors in Birmingham, explains: "We are increasingly approached by companies that discover employees are abusing the e-mail system. One client of mine recently dismissed a male employee who scanned a photograph of a female colleague on to his computer terminal. The employee then superimposed the photo onto a semi-pornographic image and flashed it around the office."

The problem is, she says, that staff often perceive e-mail as being both private and temporary - in that messages can be deleted at the touch of a button. In reality, however, they can be traced back to their origin for up to two years, and the police are entitled to read them without obtaining a warrant. "It's also worth noting that a court is likely to consider e-mail messages not as confidential, but as `published' material," says Joanna Boag-Thomson, a specialist in the internet.

It's largely due to the assumption that e-mail is private and temporary that flame-mails beget more flame-mails. Within seconds, e-rage sets in and the flame-war begins. John Seabrook, author of Deeper: A Two-Year Odyssey In Cyberspace (pounds 6.99 Faber & Faber) says of the first time he was flamed, "I did spend most of that Friday in front of the screen composing the most vile insults I could dream up - words I have never spoken to another human being and would never speak in any other medium, but which I found easy to type into the computer."

So is there a solution? SRA International thinks so. Its new software product, Assentor, maintains political correctness within organisations by alerting employers to certain expressions that are deemed unsuitable in its employees' e-mail. How extensively this software will be used in Britain remains to be seen.

In the meantime, claims Seabrook, the sad truth is that the same lack of inhibition that allows a woman to speak up in on-line meetings allows a man to ask the woman whether she's wearing any underwear.


Recognise flaming for what it is: bullying.

Keep a record of every flame and, where possible, print them. It's not just individual incidents but a regular pattern of behaviour that will be the best defence.

Ask colleagues if they have the same problem. Your case will be stronger if you can take action jointly.

Decide whether you think confronting the bully will help.

Inform personnel and/or a superior. The extent of their support will vary according to the company, but it's worth a try. Ask for a copy of your employer's anti-bullying policy, if it exists.

If all else fails, think about taking legal action.


Accidental flame: not meant to be seen by the victim. Often offensive or containing unfair criticisms, it may be widely circulated and accidentally gets copied one too many times. Hitting the "Reply all" button in error is often to blame.

Deliberate flame: a considered, purposeful criticism. Watch out for the obvious office bully here.

Shame flame: copied to victim and other colleagues, often superiors. Intended to belittle, as either a punishment or spur to improvement.

Hidden flame: often exchanged within a set e-mail "gossip" group. A "boys only" group may, for instance, mark the female colleagues for attractiveness.

Hasty flame: a harsh e-mail sent rashly and without thought as to its impact. Often a reply to a previous hasty flame, thus provoking a flame- war.