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Emojis in work communications – a risk to your reputation?

February 16, 2018

By Kristen Cifolelli, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

While the use of emoticons and emojis are more commonly utilized in texting and personal conversations, they are now making their way regularly into the workplace. But, can the use of emojis in work communications be a risk to your reputation?  

A recent study published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science Journal suggests that including a “smiley” emoticon or using emojis in work communications may result in co-workers and clients thinking you are less competent.  The study consisted of three experiments. 

In the first experiment, participants received one of four messages: a photograph of a person with a neutral expression, a person smiling, a greeting text without smileys, or a greeting text with smileys.  Participants were then asked to rate the sender on their warmth and competence.  The study found senders of texts with smileys were not rated as any warmer and were viewed as less competent as the sender of the text with no smileys. 
In the second experiment, 90 English speaking individuals from 29 countries were asked to read an email, rate the sender’s warmth and competence, write an email in response, and guess whether the sender was male or female.   The inclusion of smiley faces in the email didn’t affect the perception of warmth but did lower the perception of competence.  When the email had a smiley face, participants tended to assume the sender was female; though the assumed gender of the email sender did not affect the rating of warmth or competence.
In the third experiment, participants read an email from a new employee to an unfamiliar administrative assistant containing a question about a formal situation (a staff meeting) or an informal situation (a social gathering).  In the formal situation, including smileys seemed to have no effect on the perceived warmth of the sender but did reduce their perception of competence.  In the informal situation, it did seem to increase the perception of warmth but had no effect on the perception on competence.  

The bottom line of the study is that emojis do not necessarily make you seem warmer, but they did seem to have an impact on how competent you are perceived to be.
When it comes to how often emojis are used at work, a recent OfficeTeam Study found that nearly half of workers (41%) use emojis in professional communications.  61% of senior managers polled indicated that it was fine in some situations.  Of the managers surveyed, 21% found the use of the “smiley face” emoji is fun, 41% said the “ok hand” was fine in certain situations, but 39% found the “thumbs down” unprofessional. 19% of individuals polled indicated they use emojis all the time, and 33% indicated they never use emojis.
If you are going to use emojis, consider the following rules of etiquette:

  • Consider the situation – always think about who the recipient is and the situation for which you will be sending it.  The study referenced above shows how impressions can be formed, and you can immediately be judged by superficial interaction. Once that impression is formed, it can be difficult to change.  Be mindful of the corporate culture and the relationship with those you are communicating with.  You should never use an emoji with someone you don’t know (or don’t know well) and especially not a client.  Emojis are best used with team members and individuals you communicate with regularly.  
  • Practice discretion – emojis should never be used to replace actual words.  This can be confusing and leaves too much room for interpretation.  Emojis should be thought of like slang and used best in casual conversation.  They should be used sparingly and only to add a bit of emotion to the message.  Emojis most likely would not be appropriate for matters of a serious nature as they can appear awkward or rude.  Overuse of emojis can make the sender appear immature.  General rule of thumb is no more than one emoji per email.
  • Only use emojis you understand – the workplace is not an environment to be experimenting with emojis.  You should never use an emoji you don’t understand or one that could be misinterpreted.  Some symbols can be taken the wrong way or have multiple meanings.  Stay away from emojis that could be interpreted as angry or flirtatious, and don’t assume sarcasm will transfer well through an emoji.

Over time the negative perception of emoji use may begin to change, especially as millennials who grew up texting start to dominate the workplace.  While the context of situation always has to be kept in mind, when emojis are used correctly they can be a great way to add some fun and levity to work communications.

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