A New World Language: Managing emojis in the workplace

It started out as the humble smiley emoticon “:-)” in 1982 created by a computer scientist who wanted a “joke marker” to help people decipher his jokes in emails.

Some 36 years later, we now have an entire lexicon of emoticons (known as emojis) that can help decipher more than just jokes in an email. This lexicon includes a wider range of faces with emotions, hand and body gestures as well as other objects such as buildings, foods, animals and almost any other symbol you can think of.

Given that most, if not all, smartphones are now equipped with emoji keyboards and capable of sending and receiving emoji-laden messages, it is safe to say that emojis have found their permanent home in text messages and casual conversations.

Are they, however, appropriate for communicating with people at work and/or about business-related matters?

Issues with interpretation

The primary benefit of using emojis is that they provide a particular tone to what is inherently a toneless communication. Emojis are essentially the electronic form of non-verbal cues that people would ordinarily rely on in face-to-face interactions. 

As was the case in 1982, an emoji might help a recipient understand that a joke has been made or that a particular message, which could be read in a criticising tone, should actually be read in a positive tone. Take, for example, the following message:

“Please come in to work tomorrow – I would like to discuss the project you recently did for me.”

If a smiling emoji was added to the end of that message, the recipient is more likely to think the meeting was to praise their work rather than criticise it.

The problem, however, is that the use of emojis requires both the sender and the recipient to understand the tone or meaning that the particular emoji is trying to convey. Given the speed with which emojis have developed and expanded, it is not surprising that certain emojis might have different meanings for different people and accordingly the tone or meaning of a message could be misinterpreted.

Aside from the obvious risk that sending emojis to leaders or external clients about serious business matters might be distracting and viewed as unprofessional, there are also significant potential repercussions for employers to consider if emojis are used internally.

Consider the above example with two other emojis at the end – a cardboard box and a laughing emoji. The tone of the message is not plainly clear to the recipient although the intention could be surmised from the emojis. The cardboard box could mean “you’ll need a box to pack up your desk, you’re being fired,” whilst the laughing emoji could mean “let’s talk about what happened on the project, it was so funny.” But these interpretations are open to debate.

It is also important to note that emojis are still a fairly new concept that may be entirely foreign to some people. Emojis are also reliant on the operating system of the users and accordingly, some emojis might get lost in translation and not appear at all, which would invariably change the intended tone of the message being sent. 

The potential for misinterpretation of emojis is fairly high and could lead to misunderstandings and unintended conflict in the workplace. When an issue arises and employers (or courts) are required to determine whether a statement by an employee was intended to be serious or a joke, the interpretation of an emoji will be crucial.

Managing emojis in the workplace

There is no universal dictionary (although there is ample online guidance) for what emojis mean and a significant part of interpreting emojis will rely on the context and situation in which they are used. It is therefore important that employers take steps to manage the use of emojis in the workplace and minimise the risk of misinterpretation by:

  • Educating employees about the type of situations in which emojis are appropriate or inappropriate. Careful judegment should always be exercised having regard to the subject matter and the intended recipients.

    For example, sending a trophy emoji to the winner of the office tipping competition might be acceptable, but sending emojis in an email or text about a serious work-related matter, or to company leaders or external clients would not be acceptable.
  • Reminding employees that emojis are prone to misinterpretation and that a cautious approach should be maintained – if in doubt, do not use them. The words of an email should be sufficient to convey the message being sent.

  • Consider inserting a statement about the appropriate use of emojis or symbols into your company communications policies or style guides.

Shane Koelmeyer is a leading workplace relations lawyer and Director at Workplace Law. Workplace Law is a specialist law firm providing employers with legal advice, training and representation in all aspects of workplace relations, employment-related matters and WH&S.

02 9256 7500 | sydney@workplacelaw.com.au

Information provided in this blog is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Workplace Law does not accept liability for any loss or damage arising from reliance on the content of this blog.

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