Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

E-mania: Ethical Approaches to E-mail Overload

by Miriam Schulman

At the Web site of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, we have a feature that allows visitors to send us e-mail. And they do. Lots of e-mail. It may be a message from a divorced parent wanting advice on gaining custody of the children; from a churchwoman concerned that the pastor has allowed a single mother to teach Sunday school; from a young Egyptian woman wanting to escape her family's plan to marry her off to a man she doesn't love; from a person who has witnessed what he suspects is an unwanted sexual advance to a teenager. All of these people are, in one way or another, responding to articles we have published on our site.

Of course, all of these situations raise diverse and interesting ethical issues, but they present a single ethical dilemma for the Ethics Center. Are we obligated to respond? Which of these communications represent a legitimate claim on the resources of our organization?

That question has become ever harder to answer as everyone's e-mail box fills with demands for attention. The business world, for example, is drowning in a sea of e-mail, but the source of the problem is not primarily requests from external constituents like the Center receives. It is also not spam. Most companies and large organizations employ software programs that do a decent job of filtering out junk mail.

The real culprit in the corporation is e-mail from within the organization. Workers have to figure out how to sort the crucial meeting dates from the notices of retirement parties for employees in obscure departments; the significant memos from the "cover your behind" cc's on projects in which they have no direct involvement. Nathan Zeldes, an Intel computing productivity manager who has studied this problem for 10 years, said of his colleagues, "We're so wrapped up in sending e-mail to each other, we don't have time to be dealing with the outside."

The Scope of the E-mail Overload Problem

How big a problem is e-mail overload? Three years ago, the Pew Internet and American Life study, "Email at Work," said-to borrow a phrase from Jon Stewart, "Uh, not so much." The authors report,

While we listened to the familiar narratives about email-oppressed workers, we were surprised to discover another story about a much more moderate, tempered-and far more widespread-picture of email's role in people's work lives.
The Pew study found that most workers spent about 1/2 hour a day processing a total of about 10 incoming and 5 outgoing e-mails.

Of course, three years is an eternity in the world of the Internet. To most of us, the Pew figures sounds like a lost Eden. This year, the Microsoft Office Personal Productivity Challenge, which polled from more than 38,000 people in 200 countries, found that globally, workers received an average of 42 e-mails a day. In the United States, the figure was 56 per day.

And that's just the average. Information World Review cites the experience of Northern Marine Management, one of the largest ferry, oil tanker, and fleet management companies in the world, where many employees got up to 1,000 e-mails a day. On average, ship managers received 400 new messages in a day. Their inboxes contained an average of 2,500 unread, and a total of more than 8,000 messages waiting to be filed.

Winning the award for most overloaded inbox-no surprise here-is probably Bill Gates, who receives 4 million e-mails a day. That includes Spam, but it's still an impressive figure.

Studies of the problem show that once the Spam is filtered out, most of the messages people receive are internally generated within their own organizations. NPR's Eric Weiner called this "the corporate equivalent of friendly fire." Why?

For one thing, handling e-mails now consumes an inordinate amount of workers' time. Marc Eisenstadt, Chief Scientist at the Open University's Knowledge Media Institute, recently analyzed his own e-mail from the past eight years. He discovered that once he stripped out the Spam, he was receiving about 25 "OK e-mails" daily. He then analyzed the content of these messages during the course of one week and concluded:

Allowing zero minutes of response time for some finer-grained categories (e.g. semi-junk, self-meta, which don't require reading at all) and one to three minutes of response times for most categories, plus, say ten minutes of response time for an important research category such as 'main project work, paper writing,' it is trivially easy to get to 2.5 hours per workday assuming a fairly ruthless "one-touch," knee-jerk e-mail interaction regime. And worse if you deviate from the regime…. All of this paints a very, very bad picture.

Gary Flood of Information World Review computes that, "in a 5,000 person organization, just two hours per week set aside by each member of staff to housekeep e-mails or sort out their inboxes would equate to around a thousand hours lost productivity per week."

Sometimes the onslaught simply makes the recipients give up on e-mail as a useful form of communication. For example, according to the Associated Press, some U.S. senators receive 55,000 e-mails a month, a figure so large that many simply ignore all of them.

It's bad enough that answering e-mail is time consuming, but, according to a new study from the University of London, not answering it can interfere with worker's attention. Hewlett Packard commissioned this research in which 80 volunteers were given problem-solving tasks to accomplish, first in a quiet environment and then while being bombarded with various e-mails and phone calls. Even though the subjects were instructed not to answer the messages, their mere presence proved to be very distracting. The study's authors report that the distraction reduced workers' IQ by 10 points-more than double the effect on IQ of smoking marijuana.

It should be noted that this study has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, which has led some to question the findings, particularly whether a similar result might be observed with other kinds of distractions. As one blogger put it, "Someone should look at how much a man's IQ drops when a beautiful woman walks in the room. Then how much MORE it drops when she TALKS to him. And if she laughs at his stupid jokes, well, he's pretty much TOAST at that point..."

But despite skepticism about this particular study, few would dispute that e-mail has become a major source of distraction. It also has become a major consumer of disk space, flooding servers and storage media. A study by UC Berkeley's School of Management, How Much Information, determined that in 2003, the annual flow of e-mails worldwide was 667,585 terabytes. Of course, not all of this is saved. Still, the terabyte consumption is putting financial burdens on companies and complicating retrieval of important information stored in e-mail and e-mail attachments. This problem is only going to grow as various regulations, such as Sarbanes-Oxley, are interpreted to require that companies retain e-mail records.

Colette Askeland, director of IT-PC operations at Cadence Design, explains, "We're looking at reducing the amount we save on servers. It's expensive and it's got to be backed up…. The important corporate problem to solve is taking content that the company needs and storing it appropriately." All the contracts, the letters of commitment, the intellectual property that workers attach to their electronic messages should, Askeland says, be managed separately from e-mail, which was never intended as a storage mechanism.

What Does E-mail Overload Have to Do With Ethics?

So, e-mail overload is undeniably a problem, but is it a problem in ethics? The way we use e-mail raises questions about how we treat each other and how we treat common resources, which are two classic concerns of ethics.

In the "how we treat each other" category, we could begin with simple courtesy, a virtue that has been seriously degraded by e-mania. Opinion Research Corp did a study in May for America On-line, where they asked people if they had ever answered e-mail in a variety of "extracurricular" venues. Survey said:

In bed in their pajamas (23%)
In class (12%)
In a business meeting (8%)
At a Wi-Fi hotspot, like Starbuck's or McDonald's (6%)
At the beach or pool (6%)
In the bathroom (4%)
While driving (4%)
In church (1%)

This exceeds not only the bounds of etiquette but also of ethics. Such interruptions constitute an affront to the dignity of the people who are sitting in front of us, implicitly denying that they are worthy of our full attention. In addition, the incessant checking of e-mail further blurs the line between work and home, contributing to the notion that it's all right for the job to pursue us into the car, through the front door, and into the living room (or the bathroom, as the case may be).

Also in the "how we treat each other" category is the way we send e-mail. Too few senders recognize their messages for what they are: insistent gnats buzzing (or more properly beeping) for the attention of recipients. Too few of us ask ourselves, "Does this message contain a reasonable demand to make on someone else's time?" The failure of senders to police themselves exacerbates the kind of quandary the Ethics Center faces when we receive messages from people with moral questions: the necessity to determine which among our e-mails represent legitimate claims on our resources.

Our behavior as senders also brings us into the realm of "how we treat common resources," such as systems, servers, and storage media. There's a well-known problem when a community uses a common resource, which was first popularized in 1968 by Garret Hardin in his famous Science article, "The Tragedy of the Commons." To summarize: The classic case has to do with pastureland that is open to all. Each herdsman wants to maximize his gain, and he considers the utility of adding one more animal to his herd. This addition has both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side of the ledger, the herdsman gets the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal. We assign this +1. On the negative side, we have the problem of overgrazing on the common land. But this problem, which we might assign -1, is shared by all the herdsmen who use the commons. So, as Hardin puts it, "The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another…. But this is the conclusion reach by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited."

Many people have noted the relationship between Hardin's theory and the Internet. Bernardo Huberman and Rajan Lukose state the problem with reference to bandwidth consumption: "Because Internet surfers are not charged in proportion to their use, it often appears rational for them to consume bandwidth greedily while thinking that their actions have little effect on the overall performance of the network. Because every individual can reason this way, the whole Internet's performance can degrade considerably, which makes everyone worse off."

The parallels with e-mail are obvious. Because there is little cost-financial or otherwise-to the individual e-mail sender, people overuse the resource until it is rendered virtually ineffective.

Solving E-Mail Overload: Strategic Approaches

What to do? So far, those who have addressed this question have done so in a strategic way rather than an ethics-based way; they've asked what practical steps people can take to cut down on the inbox clutter. The consulting world is only too happy to provide companies with training programs on managing e-mail. Typically these include instructions to deal with mail only once, deleting, forwarding, or acting on it immediately. As we've seen, that process alone can take 2.5 hours daily, so it doesn't really solve the problem.

Other consultants have devised strategies that focus on not letting yourself get derailed by the onslaught. They counsel workers not to check their e-mail first thing in the morning so that they can set their agendas without being sidetracked or not checking e-mail as it comes in, which can be very distracting. For example, Capital One offers employees an e-mail seminar that includes tips like turning off the "ding" that indicates a new e-mail has arrived. While these are, no doubt, logical solutions, many of them do not work in practice.

There are workers who need to respond to certain e-mails as soon as they come in. Research in Motion, the outfit that makes the BlackBerry handheld device, commissioned a study by Ipsos-Reid, surveying 490 IT managers responsible for managing BlackBerry in their firms, and 210 BlackBerry end users. The survey found that users received seven time-sensitive e-mails a day-about 39 percent of their total e-mail.

In other words, these workers have an obligation to some of their e-mail correspondents. They face an ethical problem like the one we face on the Ethics Center's Web site: How do we determine those to whom we have an obligation to respond?

Solving the Problem of E-mail Overload: Ethical Approaches

Interestingly, several religious traditions offer various schemas to help adherents prioritize their obligations. As a people who have been the brunt of oppression historically, the Jews have evolved a startlingly matter-of-fact way of ordering people's needs. One example deals with the need to redeem people who have been captured by enemies. According to Yoreh De'ah, a compilation of Jewish law by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, when you have a limited amount of resources to pay ransom, "Your wife has higher priority than you in being redeemed, and you greater than your Rebbe or father." Jewish law also offers ways to rank those to whom we owe charity. But many of these categories deal with family relationships or levels of scholarly achievement, which would be a stretch to apply in a business context.

Thomas Aquinas was also interested in prioritizing, and in the Summa Theologica he discusses the order of charity, also translated as the order of love. Thomas deals with such thorny questions as whether we ought to love our son more than our father and whether we ought to love those who are better more than those who are more closely united to us? Although Thomas' order is also hard to apply to e-mail, he makes a point that is germane: He says, "Now order implies that certain things are, in some way, before or after. Hence wherever there is a principle, there must needs be also order of some kind."

Thomas and the rabbis do not shrink from developing principles by which we can rank our obligations. Following this logic, if we are to apply order to e-mail, we could do with some principles. In the business context, "Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience" by Ronald Mitchell, Bradley Agle, and Donna Wood, may offer some salient principles

Some of the rabbinic and the Aquinian tough-mindedness is also apparent in Mitchell, et al, who, in their subtitle, boldly claim to be "Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts." At the very least, they help to identify "those entities to whom managers should pay attention." They argue that stakeholders can be identified by their possession of one, two, or all three of the following attributes:

1) The stakeholder's power to influence the firm
2) The legitimacy of the stakeholder's relationship with the firm
3) The urgency of the stakeholder's claim on the firm

This stakeholder approach provides a useful schema for managers confronting some of the ethical issues raised by e-mail overload. But it's insufficient to solve the whole problem because so much of the volume in most managers' e-mail boxes is coming from colleagues, who are clearly stakeholders. One could argue that power and urgency are still attributes that could be used to prioritize, and we all use them to a degree. Few people ignore e-mails from the boss, for example. But to determine something like urgency, we have to open the e-mail, and then we're right back where we started with 2.5 hours a day spent going through the mail.

To address the problem of internal overload, we have to leave the realm of ethical principles and move to a common good approach. We have to think of the company or work group as a community and evolve solutions that address the way members of the community use this common resource. In other words, we have to discourage overgrazing of the e-mail commons.


Hardin himself was skeptical about appeals to conscience as a way to solve the tragedy of the commons. Besides his Darwinian argument-which may apply in his field of population biology but not so much in the realm of e-mail-Hardin makes an interesting case that asking an individual to use a commons responsibly creates a double-bind:

Sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, he senses that he has received two communications, and that they are contradictory: 1. (intended communication) "If you don't do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen"; 2 (the unintended communication) "If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons."

Intel's Nathan Zeldes observed a similar double bind in getting work groups to change their bad e-mailing habits. Workers would love to send and receive fewer messages, he found, but they are reluctant to do so in an atmosphere where sending e-mail is often equated with working hard. The company may say it wants to reduce overload, but there is often the unintended communication that sending e-mail will advance your career. As a survey by the Intel IT group discovered:

…some people send mail because of a 'publish or perish' imperative-they want to look productive or cover themselves in case of trouble. Others insist on receiving routine reports because they don't trust the sender to give them due credit. They also worry that they will be left out of the loop.

Employees at Intel told the IT group that about 30 percent of the e-mail they received from others within the company was unnecessary. So Zeldes developed a program to eliminate that 30 percent, taking the double-bind problem into account.

Called, "It's Your Time, Make Your E-Mail Count," the program operates on a waterfall model. What that means, according to the program overview is that "top management is approached first and asked to buy into the program, ratify management expectations, and personally commit to their roles as drivers of the program in their organization." Zeldes puts it more simply. Solving the problem, he says, depends on the group's perception of what the boss wants. "What does the boss really mean? If the boss means that he honestly prefers for them to send less e-mail, they will send less e-mail. But if the boss thinks e-mail is good for them…." Well, we're back at the double bind and the 2.5 hours a day poring over incoming messages.

Assuming management buy-in, the Intel program stresses a communal approach to the problem. Besides the usual suggestions about cleaning up your own in-box, "Your Time" focuses on the impact of e-mail overload on the group. It discourages unnecessary cc's and attachments by explaining how they eat up storage space and impose on people's time. It encourages senders to help the recipients with such suggestions as;

" Assist colleagues' inbox-filtering efforts by agreeing on acronyms to use in subject lines that quickly identify action items and other important messages. Sample acronyms: < AR> , Action Required; < MSR> , Monthly Status Report.

" When possible, send a message that is only a subject line, so recipients don't have to open the email to read a single line. End the subject line with < EOM> , the acronym for End of Message.

Notice the emphasis on collegiality and community in these suggestions. Members of work groups are asked to "assist colleagues," to think about how their actions affect others.

But the virtue of the Intel program is not only its virtuousness. It's also effective. After completing a pilot with approximately 1,200 employees, Intel conducted a Web-based survey, which found:

" 70 percent of employees in the region had participated in the program, and 80 percent of these participants viewed the program as beneficial.
" 71 percent of participants reported an improvement in their own e-mail effectiveness.
" 63 percent saw an improvement in the quality of e-mail they receive from others in the region
" 75 percent of the managers surveyed perceived an increase in the e-mail effectiveness of the groups they manage

Zeldes is the first to caution that this survey was conducted within a year of the program's pilot. Although Intel has not done a long-term study, Zeldes' impression is that the effects don't last forever. "Each time we run the program, it improves things somewhat for year," he says, but as employees come and go, some of the benefit is lost.

That certainly would be in line with Hardin's observation about the tragedy of the commons: "Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed."

Hardin was much more inclined to solve the problem of the commons by what he called "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon." By this, he meant that people would agree to certain restrictions on their use of the commons in order to keep the system from bogging down. An economist might phrase this in terms of creating incentives and disincentives. As Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's recent bad-boy book Freakonomics reminds us, "There are three basic flavors of incentive [and by extension disincentive]: economic, social, and moral." Organizations may be able to mobilize the latter two disincentives in the fight against e-mail overload.

For example, our use of the e-mail commons at Santa Clara University, while not perfect, is generally fairly free of pointless messages from colleagues. Most users are good about labeling their e-mails so that the audience is obvious and those who are not interested can delete the messages unread. How has the University dissuaded its members from e-mail abuse? Part of the answer seems to be good, old-fashioned moral suasion. On the rare occasion when some hapless soul sends out a political message or inappropriately hits "reply all," he or she will receive swift, stern, and sometimes public rebuke from other users. Occasionally these flurries themselves can clog up the system, but over time, they have helped to establish a communal understanding of what the e-mail system should-and shouldn't-be used for.

Other protocols of mutual coercion may work in a business setting. In fact, such measures may already be developing organically. At a recent meeting of the Center's Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership, one of the members reported that within her organization, the ability to send a good, concise, informative e-mail was beginning to be a factor in promotions.

Whatever system companies adopt, many people are likely to welcome the effort to address e-mail overload, a problem which Zeldes has called, "the number one thing making knowledge workers miserable."


Miriam Schulman is communications director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. This article is based on a keynote talk delivered June 24 2005 for "Ethics at Work: Technology Reshaping the Workplace," the 8th annual Ethics and Technology Conference, held at Saint Louis University.


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