When communicating through text messaging, chat programs, social media, or even email, it’s easy to get into the habit of responding to a message or emphasizing a point with an emoji. With thousands of these little symbols readily available to users, they’ve become an extension of our language. However, legal experts are warning that using emojis in the workplace could potentially be a very bad idea – one that can have very real and very serious consequences.
That winking smiley face you just sent your coworker over Slack could easily be interpreted as harassment, even if that couldn’t be further from your intentions. What looks like a fist bump to you could be seen as a threat, and a few of the common hand signals used in place of a written confirmation are downright offensive to foreign clients or colleagues; and there is never an appropriate situation in which to use the eggplant emoji.
This might seem a little silly or overblown, but legal teams have already started to incorporate emojis into their workplace harassment presentations, and disputes between coworkers over emoji use are not unheard of. There have already been a few instances right here in California where lawyers have had to step in and determine what a particular emoji means and what the intent behind using it was compared to what the recipient insists it means.
It’s hard enough to judge tone through written communication, and adding random symbols that can be misinterpreted to a piece of professional correspondence could be opening you up to a lawsuit. If an employee feels they’re being mocked, or are receiving messages that ring as offensive to them, they could make a legal case out of the matter.
Bay Area legal experts have come to a mutual conclusion on the topic of emojis in the workplace – just because you can use them, it doesn’t mean you should. When even something as informal as a text message can spark controversy, it’s really best to simply stick with using your words.
While these symbols often seem like they’re open to interpretation, the Unicode Consortium provides an online directory that gives definitions for over 2,600 emojis, creating what is considered to be a universally accepted emoji lexicon. That should help make things a little more straightforward, and yet conflicts are continuing to happen.
Part of that centers around the need for workplaces to exercise political correctness. Using the wrong emoji can be seen as a slight against an employee’s race thanks to the ability to choose a skin tone for certain types of emojis, or as a way to misgender someone – accidentally or otherwise. As new emojis are added, such as the upcoming woman in a hijab or a headscarf, there are even more chances for the wrong emoji to create a bad situation.
There has yet to be a case in the US where an emoji has proven to be a major influence on a verdict, but numerous cases have seen attorneys present emojis as evidence to indicate tone or intent. The fact that this is an argument that is being accepted in a court of law is perhaps the best argument for restricting emoji use around the office.
Some workplaces use emojis as a sort of internal shorthand, with agreed upon symbols standing in for written responses to requests or to indicate that a task is being handled or has been complete. Where an app like Slack or Skype serves as your team’s main way of keeping in touch and share files and information, the temptation to make quick communication even quicker makes emoji use appealing.
At the end of the day, it’s up to the discretion of each employer to decide if and how emojis should be used in the workplace. How much of a potential risk the practice creates can vary from office to office, depending on factors like the size of your team, the demographics of your team, the demographics of your clients, and the type of work that your business does.
Legal experts recommend that if emojis are going to be allowed to be part of your workplace culture, employees should stick with the basics, and take care when using added features. A regular old smiley face should be used in place of a heart eyes smiley, winking smiley, or blushing smiley. A thumbs up should be left as generic yellow, or set to a skin tone that closely matches the sender, not the recipient. Hearts, “adult” hand gestures, or any other emoji that could be viewed as flirtatious or offensive should never be used.
Even the most laid-back office should still be a professional and comfortable place to work. Your employees should be able to come in each day and feel respected by both their superiors and their peers, and not have to worry about one little emoji faux pas ruining their day or someone else’s.
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