Should you use emojis in professional communications?

Superscript
14 July 2021
6 minute read

Ten years ago, using emojis in work communications would have raised eyebrows. Now, emojis affect cryptocurrency markets, are part of workplace wellbeing strategies, and there’s even a CEO whose title is “Chief Emoji Officer.” It’s perhaps unsurprising that 3 in 4 young adults think emojis are appropriate at work, according to Surveymonkey, but older professionals tend to think they’re inappropriate.

With opinions divided, how do we navigate emoji etiquette? Especially when a lot of workplaces span different generations and cultures?

There are some good and bad reasons to use emojis. Let’s run through a few to get the final verdict.

Emojis can help us add warmth

In some settings, emojis can make you seem friendlier and more approachable. Adobe’s 2019 Emoji Trend Report found that 93% of people surveyed use emojis to lighten conversations, and 91% use them to show support to others. 81% of respondents thought emoji users were warmer than people who don’t use them.

They can show our human side

If a smiley face emoji makes you feel warm and fuzzy, you’re not alone. Research suggests that our brains respond to emojis in almost the same way that we process human faces. We can get a feeling of emotional connection from seeing emojis that we don’t tend to get from words alone.

Emojis can lighten the tone

“I use smiley emojis to add humour within work emails, usually to add lightness to a feedback-heavy subject,” says charity fundraising manager Emma Mochan.

A smiley face 😊 can add a dash of humour and lightness to your message. But be wary of its cousin the slightly smiling face 🙂, as it’s been branded “the most menacing emoji” and can be seen as passive-aggressive, fake or suspicious.

They break up dense text

”I use action/more symbolic emojis to break up text and draw attention to key points when useful, especially on social media,” says business consultant Gemma Welsh.

Rows of endless bullet points can get repetitive, but bold, dynamic emojis such as❗️✅ ➡️ ✏️ can lend life to your lists.

It’s clear that emojis can help us bring our personality, friendliness and warmth out in written messages. But what are some of the reasons we shouldn’t use them?

Emojis could make you look less competent

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam found that using emojis can make your colleagues think you are less intelligent, less competent, and only slightly, if at all, more friendly.

Another study by OfficeTeam found that 39% of senior managers think emojis in work communications are unprofessional. Colleagues at your level and below may think they’re fine, but you could risk judgement from people who make decisions about your career progression.

Emojis aren’t a universal language

Our cultural, community and personal attitudes to emojis can give them radically different meanings.

😇 The angel emoji is often used to mean “innocent”, “well-behaved” or “nothing to see here” in western countries. In China, it more often means “death.”

🤘 In countries like Brazil, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Colombia and Argentina, “rock on” or “sign of the horns” can mean that you’ve been cheated on by your partner.

👍 The thumbs-up often means “good work”, “yes” or “I approve” in the West. In the Middle East, it can be seriously offensive.

In our increasingly multicultural workplaces, it’s vital we communicate our meaning without confusion.

If you write, “The sales results were fantastic 🔥” then your team doesn’t need to know that the fire emoji means “amazing” or “excellent.” If you say, “the sales results are just in 🔥”, people who don’t share your reference points could think you’re figuratively burning the sales reports.

Treat emojis like seasoning: you can add them to your words to make your message more colourful or characterful, but they’re best avoided when used to describe something on their own.

It’s easy to miss the mark

“Nothing annoys me more than senior leaders throwing emojis into their messages to seem like they have their finger on the cultural pulse,” says media buyer Thomas. “My CEO uses the hugging face 🤗 emoji like a smiley face, and I don’t think he realises it has a different meaning. Instead of making him seem relatable, it underscores how out of touch he is.”

Some emojis have a specific meaning when used by one group or generation, that others might not know. Millennials and baby boomers, for example, use the laughing-crying face 😂 when they find something hilarious (that might be why it’s been officially branded not cool). But for Gen Z, it's more common to use the skull emoji for "laughing." It’s not a reason to back away from emojis completely, but you may need to check your assumptions: what’s light and fun for someone may look strange and stilted to another person.

If it’s so easy to trip up with emojis, why do many of us still pepper our work emails and instant messages with them? One reason so many of us love them is that they add tone, energy and personality. No one wants to be that person who throws exclamation marks everywhere (“Aren’t we having fun! At work!”) but a smiley emoji in the right place and contect can go a long way.

Not all emojis are created equal

Some emojis just aren’t safe for work. Straightforward and uplifting emotions (smiley faces, raised hands), objects that remind us of workplaces (laptops, a pencil, microphone) and abstract, positive symbols (the green checkmark, plus sign, or the light bulb as a metaphor for a good idea) are usually a good bet.

But if there’s even a chance that someone might think you’re being flirty or suggestive (winking face 😉, I’m looking at you), steer clear.

We love this list from Front:

Typically safe to use at work: 👩‍💼 👨‍💻 🙋‍😃 😎 🎉 🙌 💡 ✅ ➕ 💼

Stay away from at work: 💩 💣 🍑 🔥 😜 😈 🍆 😘 👯

Our emoji advice

Based on all the info gathered, there are some things you can do to make sure you’re getting emojis right at work.

Follow your colleagues’ example

One person’s idea of fun and lively is another person’s chaotic mess, so take your cue from whoever you’re speaking with.

“My use of emojis with clients totally changes depending on which client I’m writing to,” says writer Florence Robson. “I end up reflecting the company’s tone of voice. For example, I write for a women’s media brand which uses a lot of emojis in social captions, and my messages to their team are full of emojis, whereas I would never use emojis in an email to my healthcare foundation client because it’s just not their tone of voice.”

Until you know how the client, customer or colleague uses emojis, avoid using them. If the other person takes the leap, you’re safe to use the more neutral emojis.

Don’t use darker-skinned emojis if you’re white

Picking the right emoji skin tone can feel fraught. Many white people don’t choose lighter-skinned emojis. “I worry that choosing the lighter-skinned emojis would look a bit ‘white power’” said one person we spoke to. That’s one reason many white people choose the default yellow colour.

Define the meaning

If your team shares updates and announcements over a platform like Slack, it’s worth setting up some emoji shorthand. The eyes emoji is commonly used on Slack to mean “I’m looking at this.” You can even use emojis as a way to categorise and share knowledge. The emoji itself doesn’t matter too much, so long as everyone in the team knows the meaning and uses it consistently.

Choose your context

❌ CV or a job application?

❌ Email to a prospective client?

❌ Responding to a complaint or serious grievance?

✅ Formally agreed on meanings

✅ Arranging a party or informal work event

✅ Replying to someone who already uses emojis with you

Use them sparingly

“Used sparingly, emojis can be powerful tools for expression,” says Emily Garnham, founder of Tartle Media. “In written communications, we aren’t always brilliant at getting tonality right because there is neither the luxury of time to labour over emails nor is everyone’s particular brand of humour understood. A single emoji used at the end of a sentence can clarify that you’re grateful, or in a rush, being playful rather than serious or comedically dry instead of morose.”

Emojis are like condiments: if you add too much of one flavour, it can be overpowering. But if you sprinkle emojis through your work like seasoning, you can complement and enhance what’s already there.

Do you use emojis at work? And if so, how? Get to know your network's stance on the matter by sharing this piece to your social platforms below (with or without emojis).

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