Frowny face: should you use emojis in the workplace?

At some point today — if you haven't already — you will most likely pepper the text messages you send to friends and family with that most modern of sign-posts: the carefully selected emoji.

So pervasive have these clapping hands, devil faces and winking visages become that to not use emoji outs you as not only a late adopter of technology, but as bordering on churlish in your refusal to embrace the spirit of the times.

And it is most definitely the time of the emoji.

Last year, The New York Times used one in a headline and, in November, the Oxford Dictionaries declared the tears-of-joy emoji the "word" of the year.

Depending on your age, relationship with technology and general pedantry levels you may view this as either a direct attack on the primacy of the English language or as a fun way of communicating.

It can be very hard to give someone a tough performance review if you have been sending playful emoji to each other.

Natalie McKenna

But there is no getting past how darn sticker-book cute and teenager-ish emoji are, which raises the question whether grown men and women should be using them at all? And in what context?

Embracing the emoji

Senior lecturer at the Department of Internet Studies at Curtin University, Tama Leaver, rejects the notion emoji are somehow emasculating.

He points to the fact a team of Google developers has recently proposed 13 new emoji professions for women to ensure they are better represented beyond the salsa dancer, a bikini, painted nails and a few fashion accessories.

"Men are very well represented in emoji, which shows it is not the sole domain of teenage girls," Leaver says.


Furthermore, Leaver says emoji are vital communication tools for both adults and teens, allowing the texter to contextualise a conversation appropriately.

"Text is insufficient and we rely on facial cues to gather meaning," he says.

"We need these visual cues and the condensed nature of emoji means they can emote quite a lot with minimum effort."

The flirt factor

Many singles also use emoji as a way of indulging in flirtations.

A 2015 study published by US dating site revealed more than half of the men and women surveyed used the wink emoji to flirt with a date.

The smiley emoji was the second most popular emoji, with 41 percent of women and 33 per cent of men reporting that they use the digital image to aid them in courtship. "Emoji users don't just have more sex, they go on more dates and they are two times more likely to get married," declares study leader Helen Fisher.

This may be true, but Melbourne consultant Natalie McKenna, who works with professionals to improve their personal brand, urges caution.

"When I first started dating my husband he used a lot of emoji," she says.

"It kind of put me off because I found it so young. But then I got to know him."

Workplace emoji-quette

McKenna is also a researcher at RMIT University in impression management in business, and a firm believer that emoji are for after-hours use.

"I am a member of a couple of boards and if someone sent me emoji in that context, I would not be offended, but I would be surprised," she says.

Not that McKenna is opposed to emoji in principle.

"I see emoji as the new form of body language," she says. "Something like 60 per cent of our communication is non-verbal so I do get why people use it."

But she cautions against using them with staff. "If you are too familiar with your staff then you can end up losing authority," she notes.

"It can be very hard to give someone a tough performance review if you have been sending playful emoji to each other."

Choose carefully

Then there is the potential for downright misrepresentation. In their recent study "Blissfully happy" or "ready to fight": varying interpretations of emoji, academics at The University of Minnesota looked at common misinterpretation of the symbols.

Because emoji render differently on different viewing platforms — Apple's iPhone versus Google's Nexus, for example — there is much room for miscommunication.

A face that is interpreted as "blissfully happy" on one device may be interpreted as "ready to fight" on another, the authors note.

Leaver argues that the potential for misunderstanding is part of the reason executives need to temper their use of emoji. They should also be concerned about sincerity.

"There are no hard and fast rules, but you need to look at the context and the relationship you have with staff," he says.

Put simply: if you do not have a good relationship with your staff to begin with then a message laden with clapping hands will not help.

"In this case, people will read that as insincere," Leaver notes. "Maintain whatever tone you have with your employees in the emoji space."

And if you feel that the emoji lexicon is riven with mist-steps and confusion, then there is nothing wrong with bowing out.

"No one will judge you for not using any emoji as a CEO, but they will judge you if you use it in a cringe worthy way," Leaver says.

Do you use emojis with colleagues and clients? Let us know in the Comments section.