5 Ways Emoji Can Get You in Trouble at Work

Businessman showing ok sign
Businessman making OK sign with an emoji | Source: iStock

When it comes to using emoji at work, some would say the best policy is to just say no. These tiny digital images, which are used to express ideas or emotions in messages, have become so pervasive in recent years that some argue they’re a new type of language. Even the stodgy Oxford Dictionaries is in on the trend – it declared the “face with tears of joy” emoji the 2015 word of the year. But even as heart symbols and OK signs take over our phones, not everyone is on board with using emoji in a professional setting.
Nearly 40% of senior managers recently surveyed by OfficeTeam gave using emoji at work a thumbs down. Another 40% said they were OK, but only in certain situations. Just 21% didn’t have any reservations about using emoji at the office.
Employees were also hesitant to pepper their texts and emails with smileys and hearts. Fifty-nine percent of workers surveyed said they never used emoji in professional settings, or used them very sparingly. Another 22% said they were fine using the occasional crying face symbol or face with heart-shaped eyes in a message to peers, but they avoided them when communicating with higher-ups. Just 19% of employees said they used emoji all the time.
Whether emoji are an acceptable form of workplace communication comes down to your company’s culture, according to experts. “Even if you work in a more casual environment, don’t assume it’s OK to use emoji or emoticons,” Brandi Britton, district president of OfficeTeam, told The Cheat Sheet. “When including these symbols in messages, you run the risk of looking unprofessional or being misunderstood. Evaluate the corporate culture and type of relationship you have with each contact before using them.”
In some companies, however, you’ll need to know how to use emoji if you want to be able to communicate effectively with your co-workers. “In the right context, using emoji demonstrates you understand current communication trends — while also conveying emotions in a way that words sometimes can’t,” speechwriter Felicity Barber wrote in an article for The Muse.
While the well-placed emoji may be a way to show how you really feel, there are some instances when using one is almost guaranteed to land you in hot water. Here are five ways emoji can get you into trouble at work.

1. You sign off on a serious message with a smiley face

keyboard showing emoji
Keyboard with different emoticon reactions | Source: iStock

An errant smiley face can look passive-aggressive, or worse, insensitive, when attached to certain messages. How would you feel if your company’s CEO sent a mass email about a recent round of layoffs and signed off with grin? Before inserting an emoji, ask yourself if it could rub your recipient the wrong way. Emoji on messages communicating bad news, for example, are rarely a good idea, even if the goal is to be light-hearted.
“There may be certain situations where these icons can help lighten the mood, but there are also many others when these symbols are inappropriate,” Britton said. “They’re best left off when covering serious topics.”

2. Your boss doesn’t get it

Some people are emoji-fluent, and others are completely baffled by these modern-day hieroglyphics. If your boss is in the latter camp, you’ll want to avoid emoji in your communications with her. Not only may you look unprofessional in her eyes, there’s a significant chance your message will be misconstrued. But even if your boss is an emoji user herself, proceed with caution. Researchers have found that people often don’t agree on what common symbols convey, creating an opportunity for misunderstandings that could have serious consequences.
“If I send a friend a message of a stream of symbols and she’s a little confused, I know she’ll write me back asking for clarification,” Barber wrote. “But my boss? Or that co-worker who never says what he’s really thinking? Where your career’s concerned, the stakes are just too high.”

3. You use inappropriate symbols

Just like you should avoid dropping f-bombs in meetings with clients or your boss’s boss, you should steer clear of inappropriate emoji in workplace communications. No matter how upset you feel, the middle-finger symbol probably isn’t the best way to express it.
“There’s typically no place in the office for certain symbols like the poop emoji,” Britton said. 

4. You don’t realize what you’re saying

man holding smartphone and smiling
Young man texting in the office | Source: iStock

Emoji are a relatively new form of communication, and some of the symbols you’ll come across may be unfamiliar to you. Just like using words you don’t understand can make you look bad, so can using an emoji that you thought meant one thing, but really means another. Take that emoji you think indicates skepticism. It’s actually a kissy face — probably not the message you want to send to your boss.
“If you don’t know for sure what an emoji or emoticon means, don’t use it,” Britton said. Even if a misused emoji isn’t slightly inappropriate, using the wrong symbols can make your message difficult to understand, which won’t make you look professional.

5. You use them all the time

The occasional smiley face is one thing, but if you’re communicating with your co-workers entirely in pictographs, you may have a problem. Not every workplace message can be conveyed with emoji. You need to show your boss your written and verbal communication skills are up to snuff if you want to get ahead.
“It can be safer and more effective to just use words to get your point across,” Britton said. “Talk to colleagues on the phone or in person if it might be beneficial to see or show the feelings behind a message.”
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