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Put a Smiley on It: Should You Use Emojis in Business Communication?

By Sammi Caramela
Business.com / Work Life / Last Modified: February 5, 2018
Photo credit: pikcha/Shutterstock

Is there a place for a smiley face in your office? Emojis can provide greater emotional context, but it's easy to misuse them.

A picture is worth a thousand words – and an emoji can save you that many characters. Emojis are based on symbols from Japanese comics and express emotion through digital communication. The idea is to provide a reaction when emailing, texting or messaging someone who can't see your body language.

Most messaging programs, even those used in business applications, offer a menu of emojis. But just because they're available doesn't mean you should use them. Here are some concerns with emojis in the workplace – and some instances where you might get away with including them.

They aren't universal

Even if emojis might be appropriate in the moment, they don't always work as intended. According to Andrea Lehr, brand relationship strategist at Fractl, there is no universal agreement on what specific emojis represent.

"Individuals bring their own personal experience to how they interpret an emoji, so although you might use an emoji with streaming tears after something you found incredibly funny, someone else might wonder why you're upset," said Lehr.

"Emojis can get lost in translation," added Marty Estelle Lundstrom, founder of Polished Professionals LLC and a practicing attorney and certified etiquette consultant with Manners Pro. While a red-faced emoji might mean "angry" to one person, another person might interpret it as "embarrassed," she said. This can cause confusion and disconnect between correspondents.

They make you seem less competent

According to a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, emojis actually make workers appear less competent. Additionally, an OfficeTeam survey found that 39 percent of senior managers think it's unprofessional to include emojis in work communications. Their opinions could ruin your reputation as a qualified expert.

"Emojis are a newer form of communication, so if your recipient is older, an emoji can make you seem less competent simply because your recipient was expecting a more traditional correspondence," added Lehr.

Using emojis at work

Despite the concerns, many employees still use emojis. Not only are millennials making up a large percentage of the workforce, but there is a widespread adoption of collaborative office tools such as Slack that promote casual work interactions.

Whether you should use emojis at work depends on context. If your workplace is informal, emojis are likely more acceptable, particularly if your co-workers use them frequently.

"Mirroring is a proven strategy for in-person communication, and I believe the same is true online," said Hillary Hafke, PR manager at Promocodes.com. "Emojis are appropriate for some business emails in the same way that jokes are OK in some job interviews. You simply need to know your audience."

Don't use emojis with people you don't know very well. Be careful when messaging your boss, and particularly with customers. If you don't have a comfortable relationship with someone, it's best to avoid something that could potentially turn them away.

"If you are creating a professional business email for a new client or business client that you haven't met personally yet, I would shy away from the use of emojis in any sort of correspondence with them," said James McCarthy, CEO of Placement Labs. "However, if the email recipient is a co-worker/employee or a client with whom you have a friendly, conversational relationship, then you should be able to use as many emojis as you would like."

Know your demographic. As Userlike points out, older people may be uncomfortable with emojis, and may not even know what they mean.

"If you're sending an email to a supervisor, executive or client, or work in a corporate environment, emojis may not be appropriate," said Seamas Egan, director of sales and marketing at Campaigner. "But for millennials and younger colleagues, or in a startup work environment, emojis may be more popular and acceptable."

If someone has a serious complaint or issue, emojis are inappropriate. Above all, don't use one if you aren't certain what it means, and never replace a word with an emoji, added Egan.

"Work life without emojis sounds boring to me, but I also understand that there are moments where they are not necessary," said McCarthy.

Additional reporting by Business.com staff. 

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