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Emojis Gone Wrong: Risks Employers Need to Know

Written By: Kacye Harvey

In 2015, an emoji became the Oxford Dictionary Word of the year. A recent study by the marketing platform Emogi reported that 92 percent of the online population uses emojis and 2.3 trillion mobile messages incorporated emojis in 2016. It is no surprise that the reference to emojis in employment lawsuits is quickly increasing as employees and employers move toward more informal text and email communications as a result of smartphones. However, courts are struggling to sort out their meanings.

Although text messages with overtly sexual pictures and symbols are clearly prohibited by harassment laws and workplace policies, the newly ambiguous emojis (such as a winking eye or a tongue sticking out) require more interpretation regarding their meanings, which may result in misunderstandings.

What may be considered harmless independently, can lead to harassment claims when placed in or out of context. Some emojis are easily interpreted, but there are many that are interpreted five different ways by five different individuals. Employment law experts agree that the subjective nature of emojis can create issues in the workplace.

What should Managers do?

The first thought many might have is to ban the use of emojis in the workplace, however, this would be impossible to monitor. The first step is to remind employees that all forms of communication, regardless of form or format, must comply with company policies and procedures. Secondly, subscribe to Rosetta Stone: Emoji Version and become fluent in the language. 😂

Below are a few reminders for those who use emojis:

  • Don’t assume emojis will be laughed off. A string of angry emojis could be interpreted as an actual threat.

  • Pay attention to associated meanings. Some emojis that seem innocent could be commonly used to convey other intentions. 

  • Beware of how others may interpret your emojis. Emojis can help express meaning but they can also be vague. If your emojis confuse people, or if they are misinterpreted, problems can follow. This is especially true when communicating with people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, andcultures.

  • Know that others may see different emojis. Emojis look different depending on the platform on which they’re viewed. Sometimes these differences can result in entirely different emotions being expressed.

  • Don’t depend on emojis. A smiley face emoji might help lighten the mood of an email, but a message consisting entirely or even largely of emojis may not get a clear message across.

  • Understand that some people view emojis as incompetent or unprofessional. A recent survey showed that reading a happy face in the text of a work email made people feel that the sender was less competent. 


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