The study, released today, shows that "flaming" colleagues and junior members of staff via the office e-mail is a growing problem. More than half those surveyed in companies of all sizes had received abusive or insulting internal e-mail, while another 25 per cent knew of colleagues who had.
The survey, carried out for the computer network company Novell, found men are the worst of the electronic bullies, producing five times more "flames" aimed at colleagues than women; but men were also the main victims. Staff in sales departments tended to be the worst offenders.
Dr David Lewis, a psychologist, said: "Flames are often the response of stressed managers working against impossible deadlines which in the past would have been dealt with by talking to the offender. These days, time pressures lead some bosses to use flames by e-mail instead."
But there could be other reasons why men would choose to scold their staff remotely. Research released last December suggested that school bullies could turn into captains of industry. Dr Lewis commented: "Flaming is an electronic extension of the aggressive style of management with which they feel most comfortable."
Victims include Sarah, 29, who, soon after starting a job in a public relations company, received an e-mail from a male director asking her "are you wearing suspenders today?" It was the latest in a series that he had sent her in similar vein.
As the company had no formal channel to deal with electronic harassment, Sarah took her own action, warning a friend of the director that she "had friends who are lawyers". The e-mails stopped, but she ended up leaving the firm and still dreads the arrival of e-mails.
Peter, 42, a social work team manager in London, received a bombardment of abusive e-mails from his female boss. "I would arrive at 8am and there would be five e-mails from her, written as late as 10.30 the previous night, asking me to justify how I had come to a particular decision, or about financial costings." The messages were often copied to a senior manager, adding to the pressure. After 18 months in the job, he was signed off work by his doctor, who diagnosed stress. Eventually he resigned.
By the end of this year it is estimated that 80 per cent of UK companies will have an internal e-mail system; and a recent survey in the United States found that the average American corporate user received 178 e-mails daily.
The abusive e-mails uncovered by the survey ranged from sexual innuendo to streams of tasks with impossible timescales and official reprimands which should have been delivered face-to-face. One respondent said he was unable to enjoy his holidays for two years because the weeks leading up to it would be filled with e-mails from his manager loading extra jobs onto him.