How to navigate using risky emojis at work

As much of the world shifted to remote and hybrid working over the last 19 months, we’ve adopted new ways to communicate and build rapport online—including through small but mighty symbols like the emoji. While emoji have existed for some time now, popular on our mobile phones and social networks, their usage has hit an all-time high since the onset of COVID-19, including in the workplace. 

What was previously a “nice job!” from a manager in a team meeting may now be a gold star () in an email. An in-person high-five from a coworker might be replaced with raised hands ( ) on Slack. In our new world of working, emojis have given us a new means of expression, helping us nurture relationships and create meaning from sentiment shared online. Time and again, they have been proven to foster more effective collaboration, build culture, and improve productivity. 

But with great emoji, comes great responsibility. Particularly as emoji (along with many other types of unstructured and semi-structured data, like video and audio recordings, emails, instant message threads, and more) are increasingly showing up as evidence in court and referenced in U.S. court opinions. 

Legal and IT teams have their work cut out for them finding, managing, and producing complex emoji data as evidence in court and are increasingly using technology to automate the discovery of unstructured data. But we, as emoji users, must also understand how to use this new form of digital speech effectively and responsibly to protect both ourselves and our employers. 

Evaluating the risk of emoji ambiguity

While the use of emojis allows a unique opportunity to build rapport with colleagues online, they do come at the risk of misinterpretation. Many emoji characters can have multiple or subjective meanings and can be perceived differently depending on the messaging platform being used or the context of the conversation. 

Kissing faces and heart eyes, for instance, might be appropriate expressions of affection when communicating among personal circles. When shared with colleagues, these seemingly harmless emojis run the risk of being construed as evidence of sexual harassment. We saw this in the 2019 case of Harrison v. City of Tampa, where a former employee sued the city for wrongful termination after being fired for complaining about harassment at her workplace. Evidence submitted into court included messages in which the plaintiff’s supervisor “sent her a number of emojis that can be read to indicate that [he] was romantically attracted to Plaintiff,” including “emojis that show a face kissing, a face with hearts for eyes, and what appears to be a smiling dog with hearts next to it.”

We’ve also seen how emoji use can convey legally binding intent. In a 2017 dispute between a landlord and a potential tenant in Israel, a judge presided over a case involving a couple’s response to a home rental ad. According to court documents, the couple’s message included “a smiley, a bottle of champagne, dancing figures, and more.” When the couple went silent shortly after, the landlord sued for damages, claiming a principle of contract law that upholds the use of implied intent in deal negotiations. In the end, the court ruled in favor of the landlord, citing the couple’s misleading behavior through overly optimistic language. 

As the emoji universe expands, the potential for ambiguous and legally risky communication is only growing. Today, more than 3,000 emoji symbols are recognized by the official Unicode Standard. That doesn’t account for the millions of other custom emojis that many apps, like Slack, allow users to create. 

Adding even more complexity to this sheer volume, and particularly among global companies with remote workforces, is the nuance in how emojis are interpreted across geographies and cultures. For example, in China, the “slightly smiling” emoji ()—one many of us understand as an expression of excitement or joy—implies nearly the opposite, indicating distrust or disbelief. The angel emoji (), which typically denotes innocence or appreciation in the Western world, in other cultures, can be viewed as a sign of death and may be perceived as threatening.

Embracing emoji etiquette

As more of our world moves online, emojis are becoming as common in business as a handshake. But as is true with any other type of communication—verbal, non-verbal, or written—it’s important to use them thoughtfully and with discretion.  

Use your words. When in doubt, play it safe and use the written word. Emoji should be used to enhance and react to conversations, but not take their place. Especially when communicating around sensitive topics, or during times of conflict and tension, direct communication through writing avoids any potential for misinterpretation. 

Read the room. Whether it’s during small talk or in a business meeting, building a rapport with the people around you requires taking cues about the general tone of your setting. The same applies to instant message conversations online. Be mindful of who you are talking to (a friendly colleague versus prospective customer), the type of medium you are using to communicate (a formal email versus an informal Slack message), and potential cultural nuances. Factors like these should help guide your communication style overall, including whether or not emoji use is appropriate. 

Apply your emotional intelligence. One of the safest and most impactful ways that emoji can be used, is to express kindness and empathy. Thoughtful and well-placed emoji that indicate a showing of support or that validate others can help to nurture a positive culture, particularly in today’s world where in-person connections are few and far between. Use emotional intelligence to gauge whether the topic is more complicated than just a show of support.

Educate teams on emoji etiquette. Another valuable way to mitigate risk in the workplace when using emoji is to educate employees on best practices. This might even include creating a glossary so that everyone is on the same page on what each character means, or outlining standards around what forms of content or communication are emoji-friendly, versus emoji-free. 

These tiny, yet powerful characters add an invaluable human touch to our increasingly online and often distant communication practices, giving team collaboration, culture, and productivity a healthy boost. But still, the old adage holds true: always think before you speak – or in this case, before you emoji. Like non-verbal communication, many of these illustrations are prone to misinterpretation, potentially landing you in uncomfortable situations, or worse, in a legal crisis. But with thoughtfulness, empathy, and tact, responsible emoji use can greatly enrich our connections at work.  

Michelle Wideman joined Onna in October 2020 as the company’s first chief customer officer.