HR Headaches: Is It OK to Use Emojis in Work Communication?

Here’s how to determine if emojis are the right fit for your workplace.

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Using emojis has its benefits, but it’s important to use them correctly and appropriately

As more workers and their bosses are relying on text messaging to communicate, many businesses are seeing a rise in the use of emojis. Once reserved for personal communications, emojis are inching their way into organizations, with many wondering whether it’s a good thing. Emojis may be appropriate for business depending on the type of work your company does, how you use them, and when.

Emojis can be helpful in translating feelings in personal and business communications, and with many working remotely, the lack of interpersonal connection may be a contributing factor to their use. You may never speak with a colleague, but you may want to let them know, without having to spell it out (literally), your frame of mind. Emojis may help add a bit of a personal touch to what would otherwise be bland communications. They may help translate a bit of personality, as well.

Too business casual?

In a recent poll by SurveyMonkey, over 550 respondents were asked whether emojis were business-appropriate. The survey found basically a 50/50 split, and age groups split the results. 46% of workers aged 18 to 29 thought a smiley face emoji on your signature line was appropriate; only 28% thought they were not.

For workers 45 and up, the difference was stark: 60% thought emojis were inappropriate for work communications. Some cited that their use is the height of unprofessionalism. Of this group, 29% believe they make a colleague look unprofessional; 36% when upper management uses emojis.

When it came to customer and prospect communications and marketing, the results were clear across all age groups: 45% felt using emojis with these audiences was unprofessional versus 11% who thought it was appropriate.

A Clutch study found 44% of workers use emojis at least once a day; 32% more than once daily, and 23% avoid using them entirely. Of the groups that use them, about a third say they use them with non-manager coworkers, but only 5% said they’d be comfortable using them in a message to a CEO. This survey suggests workers are adapting their use of emojis, based on the recipient of the message.

What do emojis say?

An Adobe survey found that 74% of participants feel emojis make positive news appear more sincere.

For the younger group, the SurveyMonkey study found 50% thought a colleague who uses emojis is more fun, 43% felt the coworker was more approachable, and 35% said they appear kinder if they use emojis. They may be helping this cohort establish more meaningful connections.

An Adobe survey found that 74% of participants feel emojis make positive news appear more sincere. An example is a good job message with an applause emoji. When it comes to likability and credibility, the majority of workers in this survey felt emojis have a positive impact in the workplace.

Should you address the emoji in the room?

If you don’t have a policy on the use of emojis in the workplace, you probably haven’t had any complaints about their use so far. For many workers, particularly those who never lived in a world without tech, their use is as common as language itself. For more senior staff, there may be hesitation to use them in even the most common forms, like a thumbs up emoji to acknowledge you received a message or an assignment.

Some staffers may be hesitant to complain about the use of emojis in the workplace because they’re concerned they’ll seem out of touch. Others have trouble interpreting the emojis they receive, unless they’re basics — like a smiley face or a birthday cake.

Some emojis are hard to interpret: the tears of joy emoji could prompt the receiver to believe the sender is upset. A red-faced emoji may be meant to show embarrassment, but could be interpreted as anger.

A formal or informal policy might help bridge the gap between the generations at work. It may also outline when emojis aren’t business appropriate, such as for customer communications. Start with knowing what your emoji culture is at work. How prevalent are they and is everyone comfortable with their use? An employee survey could help uncover this information anonymously, allowing staff members to be candid about whether they feel emojis are professional, inclusive or helpful.

A formal or informal policy might help bridge the gap between the generations at work. It may also outline when emojis aren’t business appropriate.

Are emojis the right fit?

If your business markets to young influencers, emojis may be mandatory for communications. If you’re running a small medical practice, your patients might not take kindly to a vomit face in text messages. Whether you have a policy or not, establish some ground rules for when it’s okay to use emojis, how to use them effectively, and when they should be off the table.

Start with customer or potential customer communications. Again, if you’re an avant-garde company, emoji at will. For other businesses, emojis may only be appropriate for in-house communications and should not be used with clients. If upper management are emoji-averse, you can outline as well that their use is not appreciated in the C-suite.

While you don’t want to suggest discrimination based on age, ask employees to consider the recipient before they hit send. Will the person be likely to understand what the emoji means? If you’re set on using it, should you explain what it is? A quick, “laughing so hard I’m crying” spelled out before the teary face could help the receiver understand you’re happy and not devastated.

For some emojis, it doesn’t matter who the recipient is if it’s unclear. Does the “thumbs up” emoji mean I got your message, or that I’m accepting the assignment? Does a clown emoji mean the sender is kidding or do they think the receiver is a clown? If you’re not sure of your audience, or you think the emoji doesn’t fully articulate what you’re trying to say, it’s a best practice to provide context so there’s no miscommunication or concern.

Prohibited emojis

Of course you’ll want to prohibit the use of emojis to harass, bully, or be suggestive with colleagues or customers. A winking face emoji, one that shows the middle finger or poop, or emojis that have a sexual connotation should be banned from office communications.

Emojis’ place at work

Emojis do have their place in office communications. They can help coworkers establish a more personal, congenial relationship, particularly if they’re working remotely. They’re also out-of-place in some instances, like dealing with customers. Guidelines can help workers understand when it’s okay to say it with a symbol, and when you should spell it out.

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