Cover Story

Understanding the mood of a working environment is a first step in determining how to alleviate counterproductive behaviors, experts say. But a new software tool takes the idea of monitoring employee moods further than anonymous venting on Intranet sites or in suggestion boxes.

Eric Shaw, PhD, a former psychologist with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, is working with Stroz Associates in New York to develop software that can detect anger and mood changes.

According to Shaw, the software works by detecting negativity in sets of phrases and words in employees' e-mails. The software tracks content and the number of negatives compared with other e-mails, as well as key words like "kill," "fire" or "bomb."

"All the computer does is track numbers," says Shaw. Companies can set up acceptable tracking thresholds.

There are a host of indicators of anger in language, says Shaw. "Language becomes more simplified when we are angry or stressed. Angry people use words that denote judgment, good or bad, and they refer to individuals more frequently and are more emotional, more evaluative and more personal."

The software does not detect counterproductive behaviors that could lead to violence, he notes, it detects changes and leaves the assessment of risk up to humans. "That's a dangerous thing to say it can do. We are interested in determining if there's been a change in mood or language."

The software's findings should always be judged by trained professionals, he says. A psychologist, human resources manager and a security expert, for example, could be designated to evaluate the situation and determine the course of action.

"We're just producing a red flag. The software could be a useful way to identify changes in emotional state that could signal at-risk individuals."

--J. DAW