5 emoji mistakes to avoid in the workplace

Emoticons at the office are not all harmless fun. Avoid these pitfalls to prevent mixed messages—or something much more damaging.

Whichever language you speak, it’s wise to become fluent in emoji, too.

Whether you’re a full-blown text aficionado or flip-phone holdout, emoji are now part of life—even at work. Unfortunately, it’s not all smileys, cupcakes and rainbows.

As millennials take over the workforce, emoji use in workplace communications will probably continue unabated. As CBS reports: “Almost nine out of 10 millennials use emoji at work with co-workers whom they consider friends.”

Most of these symbols are innocent and fun, but what if they are used to harass, manipulate or convey an illegal motive? With nearly 3,000 emoji to choose from, there are plenty of opportunities to potentially send the wrong racial, gender and cultural message.

Just like words, emoji have the potential to engender lawsuits and cost businesses dearly. Consider these five ways emoji could create liability in the workplace:

Pitfall 1: It was just a joke! I didn’t mean it!

Emoji have no universal definition and are highly subjective. Think of a winky face at the end of any sentence.  Is the sender treating you as “in the know”?  Is it intended to mean the opposite of what is written?

As with any picture, the recipient can interpret the message in a way that was never intended by the sender. For sex harassment cases or other such claims, a joking intent does not save a company from liability. What matters is how a reasonable recipient would interpret the message.

A seemingly innocuous fruit symbol may have alternative meanings that harass or create a hostile environment. Messages intended as jokes can very quickly escalate into a lawsuit.

Pitfall 2: Ambiguous messages get misinterpreted.

Emoji can be easily misinterpreted and used as evidence in any discrimination case where intent is required. For instance, an exchange between a supervisor and an HR employee regarding a 50-year-old colleague’s performance where the “dinosaur” emoji was used could readily support an age discrimination claim.

One employee’s attempt at humor can easily boomerang back when the lawsuit is filed.

Pitfall 3: Too much kissy face.

Another trap is the mindless use of any number of emoji that could be construed as romantic or amorous.

You might have sent that winky face or model emoji to mean, “You’re great; go hire that candidate,” but it could be misconstrued as, “Go hire the beautiful candidate.”

If you feel tempted to send anyone at work a kissy face, or anything that could possibly be construed as sexually suggestive in any way, just don’t.

Pitfall 4: Texting too fast.

As emoji proliferate, such as thumbs-up symbols in different skin shades, there is plenty of room for error. Do you trust your workers to navigate the complexity and potential liability of emoji skin tones in the context of split-second messaging?

When we text, we tend to text quickly. It’s the same for email and messages on platforms such as Slack. This lends itself to mistakes—some of which could be truly disastrous in the workplace.

Pitfall 5: Emoji-speak and sarcasm.

Attempts to combine multiple emoji to spell out words is fraught with danger, and they can easily give credence to discriminatory claims. One person’s sarcastic flourish can be another’s workplace breaking point.

So, what’s an employer to do? Emoji-speak isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so the best bet is to educate your workers on what is acceptable and what will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Make your employees aware that emoji are not all fun and games, and that misuse could have dire consequences for the company.

An outright ban may be unworkable, but any and all discouragement of emoji as part of workplace messages is a step in the right direction.

Walter Foster is a leading attorney in employment law, business litigation, municipal law and pension law.

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