Communicating at work used to be straightforward, but the rise of digital tools, from email to enterprise social networks, has added a degree of nuance to matters.

Are Emoji Out of Place in the Workplace? 

Communicating at work used to be straightforward, but the rise of digital tools, from email to enterprise social networks, has added a degree of nuance to matters.

Using emoji in digital communications isn’t as neutral as one may think. These small digital images used in electronic communication may mean different things to different people, namely in a multicultural or international context.

Should we ban them or just be cautious whenever we use them professionally?

Non-verbal cues are difficult to convey in a digital message, so the emoji was born to help add meaning to words that could be taken in many ways. Nusrat Zareen of Majmaah University estimated in a research paper that a whopping 90% of people use emojis when communicating on social media, with some 1,900 different images to choose from.

The aim of the emoji is to replicate the non-verbal signals we give off when we communicate in real life. Many also believe that emojis allow emotion to be portrayed in the written word. Is that really the case though? Let’s look at both sides of the story.

Smiley face

A study published earlier this year by Linda Kay and colleagues at Edge Hill University looked at how people responded to the use of emojis in the workplace. It found that when emojis were used, workers reported less ambiguity in communication. The study shows that their use wasn’t purely to convey emotions but also to add a richness and complexity to messages that words on their own often struggle with.

“There are a lot of idiosyncrasies in how we gesture, and emojis are similar to that, especially because of the discrepancies as to how and why we use them,” the authors say. These benefits can be especially pronounced in multicultural groups where language can prove a barrier to effective communication.

Frowny face

However, a recent study by Ella Glikson et al suggests that emoji use at work is not so positive. It found that not only can emojis create an unprofessional impression, but they can also inhibit information-sharing among colleagues.

“Our findings provide first-time evidence that, contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence,” the authors say. “In formal business e-mails, a smiley is not a smile.”

The study saw hundreds of participants from 29 different countries read a range of work-related communications across several distinct experiments. For instance, in one experiment participants had to read an email from an unknown colleague, after which they were asked to rate the competence of that person, alongside how likeable they were.

The messages sent to each participant were practically identical except some of them included a smiley emoji, whilst others did not. When the results were analyzed, it emerged that messages that included a smiley emoji were not only regarded as being sent from less competent individuals, they also had no effect on the warmth we feel towards that person.

“The study also found that when the participants were asked to respond to e-mails on formal matters, their answers were more detailed and they included more content-related information when the e-mail did not include a smiley,” the authors continue. “We found that the perceptions of low competence if a smiley is included in turn undermined information sharing.”

Similar findings emerged from the other experiments, with work communications containing emojis regarded as being from less competent people than those without.

Interestingly, the study went on to explore gender and emojis. The authors sent participants a range of messages where the gender and identity of the sender was hidden from them. It emerged that when the message contained an emoji, the recipient would generally regard the message has having come from a female colleague.

In other words, the study seems to cast significant doubt on the effectiveness of emojis in being a suitable replacement for the smiles we use in real life, which are known to increase perceptions of both competence and warmth. Not only are emojis generally an ineffective substitute, they can do more harm than good.

One slight caveat, however, is that these findings generally emerged in communication between two relative strangers. The problems weren’t anywhere near as strong when communications were between two people who were familiar with one another.

Worth the risk? 

The emoji itself has undergone an evolution in recent years, with shorthand such as lol (laugh out loud) replaced by smiley emojis. Whilst there are those who would argue that emojis have become a truly global means of communicating, I would cast significant doubt on their suitability for professional communication.

I am currently working with healthcare innovators from around the world to help deliver new technologies into the National Health Service. Cross-cultural communication through unified communication and collaboration tools adds an interesting dimension to my work.

When we think emojis in a business context, we often think of them within the same company in a team environment where their use can lead to misunderstanding and, as such, productivity issues. But as more companies use unified collaboration and communication tools to connect with their clients, we must consider client-facing communications too. And in these contexts, it is imperative to refrain from using emojis. If you are a front-line or customer-facing employee working in any industry—healthcare, hospitality, transportation and so forth—a smiley can get you in trouble if it causes a misunderstanding or makes you seem unprofessional. For instance, restaurant chain Miller & Carter landed themselves in hot water after rejecting a job candidate with a message containing a tearful emoji. Whilst the company claims that the message was supposed to be for internal eyes only, it underlines the potential for misunderstandings.

Emojis can even land you in court. As Eric Goldman, Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law notes in a blog post, more and more court cases involve the use of emojis. Recall the famous case of Osiris Aristy, the American teenager who was arrested for using a gun emoji in a Facebook post directed at a police officer. Whilst he was eventually acquitted by a jury, the case does highlight the potential for misunderstanding even in the use of a medium designed to reduce that very thing. After all, what Aristy meant as a gesture of protest against police violence was understood by others as a threatening gesture.

So it would be naive to think that the emoji does not carry meaning, whether subtle or explicit. A recent study from the US’s National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 75% of employers want candidates with exceptional written communication skills. Indeed, this was ranked the third most desirable quality in a new recruit, just behind leadership and teamwork skills. In a world where clear communication is so highly valued, it might appear unduly risky to start deploying emojis in your messages to colleagues.

Still, in some instances emojis are perfectly acceptable, and there are telltale signs that you’re working in an emoji-friendly environment. For instance, many start-ups have a more relaxed communication style in general, and so emojis are a more common sight in internal comms. The smaller size of the organization also means that you know your colleagues well, and this familiarity is crucial. You should never risk an emoji with someone you are unfamiliar with, but once a relationship is formed then they’re a whole lot safer because the potential for misunderstanding is so much lower.

Start-ups also tend to have much flatter hierarchies, and so managers feel less distant from the majority of employees. This closeness is crucial in that it enables greater familiarity between managers and employees, and also therefore a more relaxed communication style.

When it comes to emojis, one basic heuristic has served me well throughout my corporate career, whether working in start-ups, large corporations, charities or government departments: If you do use emojis at work, it might be best to restrict their use to communication with colleagues you are already very familiar with, and who are at a similar level in the organizational hierarchy as you.

About the author
Blog author adi gaskell 82x82

Adi Gaskell

Digital strategic

Adi Gaskell is an experienced innovator who has over 15 years experience across startups, government and industry. He comes with an academic background in artificial intelligence and bioinformatics, and has worked with organisations such as the NHS, The Ministry of Defence, Salesforce, Deloitte, Oracle and GSK. He also writes for Forbes and the BBC and contributed to a recent book on change in healthcare.

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