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

The work emoji has its benefits, but it’s important to use them correctly and appropriately. Here’s how to determine if emojis are the right fit.

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As more workers and their bosses rely on text messaging to communicate, an increasing number of businesses are seeing a rise in the use of work emojis. Once reserved for personal communications, emojis are steadily inching their way into organizations.

Emojis may be appropriate for business communications, depending on the type of work your company does, how you use them, and when. But in some situations, those cute little emoticons are just not a good complement to professional communication.

Many wonder whether this cultural phenomenon is a good thing or not. Let’s take a closer look at the use of emojis in the workplace.

Are emojis OK in work emails?

Different emojis can be helpful in translating feelings in personal and business communications. Now that many people work remotely, the lack of interpersonal connection may be a contributing factor to their use. You might never speak with a colleague, but you still want to let them know, without having to spell it out (literally), your frame of mind, especially when you can’t use the nonverbal cues you’d use in physical workplaces.

Emojis may help add a bit of a personal touch to what would otherwise be bland communications. Using more emojis in communications may help translate a bit of personality, as well. In essence, emojis, when used appropriately, can serve as a universal language everyone understands.

Can you send emojis to your boss?

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. The poll found 46% of workers age 18 to 29 thought a “smiley face” emoji on a signature line was appropriate; only 28% thought it was not appropriate.

For workers 45 and up, the difference was stark: 60% thought emojis were inappropriate for workplace communication. Some respondents from older generations called their use  the height of unprofessionalism. Of this group, 29% believe that using emojis at work makes a colleague look unprofessional. About 36% when upper management uses emojis.

When it came to marketing and communications with customers and prospects, 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 that 44% of workers use emojis in business communication at least once a day. It also found that 32% used them more than once daily, and 23% avoid using them entirely. Of the people who are emoji users, about a third say they use them with non-manager coworkers. However, only 5% said they’d be comfortable using them in a message to a CEO. This survey suggests workers adapt their use of emojis based on the recipient of the message.

What do people think about work emojis?

In an Adobe survey, 74% of participants said emojis make positive news appear more sincere.

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

In an Adobe survey, 74% of participants said emojis make positive news appear more sincere. An example is a “good job” message with an applause emoji. The majority of workers in this survey felt emojis have a positive impact in the work environment.

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. On the other hand,  senior staff might hesitate to use them in even the most common forms, like the “thumbs up” emoji to acknowledge receipt of  a message or an assignment.

Some staffers might hesitate to complain about the use of emojis 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 send could use a red-faced emoji to show embarrassment, but the receiver could interpret as showing anger. In this respect, emojis are much like traditional language, there is room for misinterpretation.

A formal or informal policy might help bridge the gap between the generations at work. Formalizing expectations for how people use emojis will make it clear 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.  Formalizing expectations for how people use emojis will make it clear when emojis aren’t business appropriate, such as for customer communications.

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  ground rules for when it’s all right to use emojis, how to use them effectively, and when they should be off the table.

Your guidelines naturally will reflect your specific business setting. For instance, in remote work structures where body language is absent, team members may prefer a different approach to emoji use than those who are in-person and accustomed to a more traditional type of company culture.

Start with customer or potential customer communications. Again, if you’re an avant-garde company, emoji at will. For other businesses, emojis may be appropriate for only in-house communications and should not be used with clients. If upper management is 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 who prefer emoji use to consider the recipient. 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.

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Is the emoji’s meaning clear?

Urge employees to also consider whether an emoji would be unclear regardless of the recipient. Does the “thumbs up” emoji mean “I got your message,” or “I’m accepting the assignment”? Does a clown emoji mean the sender is kidding or that they think the receiver is a clown?

Or what about simply using one emoji in a subject line? That leaves much open to interpretation. For example, an important, time-sensitive message might be overlooked or pushed aside for later since it might come across as a playful note.

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 with a written message..

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. These types of emojis have no real place in any level of professional communication.

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. In some ways, they can even be a time saver — not unlike a picture that says a thousand words. Thoughtful use of emojis can replace a block of text. However, they’re also out of place in some instances, like dealing with customers. Guidelines can help workers understand when it’s acceptable to say it with a symbol, and when you should spell it out.

The professional workplace has been consistently evolving since the advent of technology. As times change, new ideas or cultural phenomenon, such as emojis, often creep into professional environments. It’s less of a question of whether emoji use is appropriate than whether leadership should set boundaries so no misunderstandings occur. It’s the latter that leads to disruptions and negatively impacts interpersonal relationships.

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