Someone earlier this week emailed dozens of BuzzFeed staffers alleging harassment by one of their co-workers. Less than a day later, the email was gone from all company inboxes, leaving staff confused and disturbed.
On Tuesday, dozens of employees—predominantly women—at the digital news and culture outlet received the email from a non-staffer leveling personal, uncorroborated accusations at one of their BuzzFeed colleagues, and calling for him to be fired. The email struck some staff as bizarre and disturbing, and it quickly prompted an internal response from BuzzFeed’s human-resources chief.
“At this time, we have not corroborated the allegations, and have no reason to believe the individual poses harm to any BuzzFeed employee,” senior vice president Katie Sitter said in a note to those who’d received the email. “We want to assure you that we are looking into this matter further.”
But the following day, when some employees went to find the original email with the allegations, they instead found that it had entirely disappeared from their inboxes without warning. Staffers were alarmed at the idea that their employer could seemingly delete emails from their inboxes on a whim.
In a company Slack channel where staff can pose questions for BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, some of the outlet’s journalists expressed concerns about the decision to delete the email, saying that it raised questions about ensuring the protection of sensitive information and confidential tips that arrive in company inboxes. Other staffers said they were aware of previous emails that had been deleted, and wondered why BuzzFeed would delete the email if there was an ongoing investigation into the allegations.
“As a journalist who sometimes deals with sensitive information and news tips I’m deeply troubled by the idea that emails can be deleted from our inboxes with no notice and without previously articulated standards (at least not what I’m aware of) for what it happens,” one dismayed staffer wrote.
“Emails (including this one) have been deleted from my inbox more than once now and I’d also like to know why,” another employee demanded.
While nothing shared on company email is truly private, media companies often attempt to tread lightly and establish firewalls when it comes to the inboxes of their reporters. Journalists are famously paranoid and protective of their sourcing, and often go to great lengths to ensure that communications with tipsters or confidential sources are not shared with other individuals, including their own company’s management.
In response to staff concerns, BuzzFeed higher-ups admitted the company had deleted the email but pushed back against the notion that the delete represents the potential for incursions into their journalists’ inboxes.
In a series of Slack messages, Peretti and Sitter claimed that BuzzFeed occasionally deletes spam emails, notes with errors such as broken links, and emails where there are “legal reasons to delete information for our system.”
Sitter said that although the company would never “delete the voice of a victim,” the company did not know the sender’s relationship to the BuzzFeed employee facing accusations, and was “not in the business of publishing unsubstantiated claims, let alone allowing our systems to be used to spread them to our workforce.”
Peretti insisted that the deletion was “not part of a cover up,” and that the company was still investigating the claims. He added that in the future the organization would develop a concrete policy for when it deletes emails, but argued that the allegations—because they went to such a wide pool of staff—essentially constituted spam.
“For security reasons and privacy reasons we do not want a dynamic where every allegation or complaint against any employee is sent to hundreds of employees,” he said.
In another message, Peretti added: “We didn’t anticipate a situation where we’ve got an active investigation and one of the parties involved is sending unsolicited mass emails to as many BuzzFeed employees as possible making allegations about their colleague. Without clear policy applicable to this specific situation, we made a quick decision.”
The company higher-ups’ message to staff was not entirely well-received.
“BuzzFeed likes to talk about ‘truth and joy,’ but in this case, they did not live up to their own stated standards,” one staffer told The Daily Beast. “Their explanations of how this happened only raised more questions. It’s really disappointing and frustrating.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for BuzzFeed wrote: “Tuesday night, someone outside BuzzFeed sent an email to more than 100 staff containing uncorroborated allegations about a BuzzFeed employee. In an effort to prevent a potentially false and slanderous allegation from spreading before we had fully investigated it, the company deleted the email from inboxes of staff who’d received it (as we do in cases of phishing and hacking attempts, and other spam).
The statement added: “We understand the concerns of the News team about the integrity of their email, but to be clear: monitoring, reviewing, or deleting people’s emails is not something we do in the normal course of business. This was an extraordinary case, and we intend to review our policy on email preservation to make sure we chart the best path forward.”
The deleted-email saga was the talk of BuzzFeed News staffers, who, along with most other major New York-based media companies, have kept its physical offices closed since the pandemic shut down most physical workspaces in early March. The pioneering digital-media organization has weathered a series of difficult challenges, instituting temporary pay cuts, furloughs, and a handful of staff layoffs. BuzzFeed announced this month that following several months of cuts, it was restoring full employee salaries.