Using Emojis in the Workplace and Why You Should Not

Emojis…those little symbolic icons that, during our very busy lives without time to type a bunch of words out, can quickly express our thoughts and feelings to friends, family and other special ones in our lives.  The smiley face telling a friend hello or to have a nice day, the winking face blowing a kiss to a romantic partner, the hot red face grimacing about a bad day at work, the frowny face with tears telling the world about some sadness…all of these emojis and more have become the norm, the accepted way the majority of us communicate with one another on a daily basis.  We use these emotional symbols via texting, social media, and sometimes workplace email. 

But the question is…should we be using them in all areas of our lives? 

  • Personal texting or emailing to friends, family and loved ones…great! 
  • Posting on non-professional social media sites…not a problem! 
  • Using in workplace emails or professional social media sites such as LinkedIn…most definitely a no! 

“Why should we not use emojis in a workplace setting”, you ask?  Let’s discuss four of the main reasons why I believe we shouldn’t use emojis in our professional lives.          

Can imply sarcasm

I know you may have innocently used that smiley face emoji at the end of your email response to a manager, simply meaning you pleasantly completed the task they asked you to do.  You may have thought that straight face included in your “I am so sorry to have caused that mistake that you had to fix” email to your coworker was just a way to ask for forgiveness.  That frowny face inserted into a customer communication, apologizing as to why their shipment was late…I know you didn’t mean anything negative by doing this. 

According to Alizah K. Lowell, LCSW-R, CEDS, a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in New York City, in her article titled Why Do We Use Emojis?  Sometimes our words benefit from the addition of pictures, we often use emojis for several different reasons such as lightening the mood, softening the blow and expressing ourselves when we have difficulty communicating the right words (Lowell, 2016).  However, she also states that “Emojis are not labeled, so their meaning is up to those who use them” (Lowell, 2016).  This is where I start to have a problem with them being used in the workplace.

Since emojis can be interpreted in many different ways, the receiver of a workplace email may not view your response the same way that you intended it to mean.  When dealing with someone with an eating disorder or marital problems, it might just be ok for a social worker or psychiatrist to use emojis to “lighten the mood” or “soften the blow”;  however, your manager may start getting irritated when they continuously get a “Done 😊” response to something they have had to ask you multiple times to do. Your coworker that has to constantly email you to fix mistakes you have made is going to start thinking the straight face you continue to send them each time has a sarcastic meaning.  That customer who would really like to send you the angry red face emoji because their order was messed up or shipped late again may just go find another supplier if they continue to receive frowny faces but no future change in the amount of errors.    

Could be viewed as sexual harassment

As a manager, I have had a winking face sent to me in an email where I was asking other employees why they were not following a certain process.  Even though I knew the certain employee was only implying that they were happy that I was asking for others to follow this certain process they had also previously requested, it made me start thinking as an HR Manager as to whether that winking face was appropriate or not. 

Can winking, smiling or other emojis be considered sexual harassment in the workplace?  Yes, I believe they can and so do certain attorneys.

“It’s very common, in my cases, to have an employer say something inappropriate—or sexually coming on—to an individual, who is shocked and unable to come up with a response. Often, they would put an emoji to try to diffuse the situation,” says Debra S. Katz, an employment attorney in Washington, D.C. “I’ve seen cases where the defense has said, ‘The behavior is not unwelcome—look at the emojis.’ Instead of saying ‘Stop this now,’ they try to diffuse it by sending more friendly—or, at least, more neutral—symbols (Schirm, 2018).”

Might show incompetence

While most of us use emojis in our personal interactions as a fun way to communicate our emotions and feelings, using them in the workplace might just make one appear incompetent.  Colleagues with master’s degrees who never have any true input to any problem or process improvement, other than a smiley face emoji, tends to make me think that they truly are incompetent.  The emoji is, in my opinion, a way for them to diffuse their lack of knowledge on the subject being discussed. 

As discussed previously, there can be many different meanings of any emoji.  Per a study published in “Social Psychological and Personality Science, “a smiley is not a smile” and it is best to not use them in formal emails (Liebermann, 2017).

May destroy credibility

Another reason to not use emojis in the workplace is to retain credibility with all colleagues.  For example, if I as a Plant Controller and HR Manager am sending out an email memo reminding all employees to adhere to the company’s workplace bullying and harassment policy, I would probably be laughed at and ridiculed if I used an emoji within that email.  The employees would most likely consider me to be a hypocritical leader who isn’t following the policy myself.

If a CEO needs to send out a memo stating the company has been sold and future layoffs or restructuring are imminent, he/she would not want to apply a frowny face emoji, as it could send the organization into a state of frenzy and chaos.  Employees might start immediately jumping ship, showing negative attitudes, and becoming less productive; therefore, causing major cost problems for the business.

In conclusion, an infrequent emoji in a casual business email might be ok; however, it is best to not use them.  Whether dealing with a lawsuit by an employee who feels bullied or harassed, losing productivity due to executive leaders not being taken seriously or other workplace communication issues, all it takes is one emoji taken the wrong way for an individual or business to suffer serious career and financial repercussions.     

References

Liebermann, O. (2017, August 17). Using emoticons in work emails make you look incompetent, a study finds. Retrieved from CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/17/health/emoticons-emails-study-trnd/index.html

Lowell, A. K.-R. (2016, May 16). Why Do We Use Emojis? Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/contemporary-psychoanalysis-in-action/201605/why-do-we-use-emojis

Schirm, B. (2018, November 18). CAN EMOJIS BE DEEMED SEXUAL HARASSMENT? Retrieved from Super Lawyers: https://www.superlawyers.com/washington-dc/article/can-emojis-be-deemed-sexual-harassment/2d21e4c0-d606-4650-9717-44df031755ba.html

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