To Be or Not to Be Included in Business Communications, That’s the Emoji Question

Emoticons and emoji are increasingly finding their way into workplace e-mails and texts. That may or may not be a good thing, but do HR professionals need to address the issue in employee handbooks? 

Here’s the good news: no one is suggesting that you drop everything and immediately update your policies to spell out the different characters and symbols employees can and can’t use. Nevertheless, it’s a communications trend worth paying attention to. 

First, let’s review the terminology. Emoticons are the character strings you can type out and look at sideways to discern facial expressions, such as :-) for a happy face and :-( for a sad face. 

Emoji (some people prefer “emojis” for the plural) have more variety and color, kind of like Dorothy in Oz instead of Kansas. Their usage is common in texting and other arenas, including Twitter, Pinterest, Skype and Gmail. To see some of the most popular emoji, you can check out a top 100 list compiled by DataLab or visit

Pros and Cons

Technological advances are transforming our methods of communicating. As we rely more on e-mail and text-based communications, one of the challenges is the lack of subtle cues that would be present in face-to-face or voice conversations. Emoticons and emoji are often touted as a means of adding an emotional dimension that would otherwise be absent, but they can also be viewed as informal and unprofessional. 

Researchers explored this issue in one study, which showed that a smiley emoticon in a business e-mail gave it a more positive tone and caused the sender to be viewed as friendlier, though less professional. In a separate examination of several studies, the author put a more favorable slant on the use of emoticons and emoji, saying they’re okay in business and don’t really affect credibility.

If you decide to give the use of emoji an official thumbsup at your workplace, there’s another issue to be aware of, and that’s a lack of diversity. For instance, you’re likely to find that the Keebler elves are more diverse than the emoji characters on an iPhone. However, this won’t be the case for long, according to recent reporting by NPR and other news outlets, as coders are already working to solve the problem. 

Which brings us back to the question of whether you should take a formal stance on the use of emoticons and emoji in workplace communications. The research doesn’t provide a definitive answer, but if you want to add something to your company policies, here’s a one-sentence recommendation: “Because emoticons and emoji suggest a certain level of familiarity, you should reserve their use for contacts, clients and colleagues you know well.” 

And now, with the hope of engendering some real-life smiles, I’ll call your attention to some emoji-related humor geared specifically to HR professionals in an irreverent blog post by Tim Sackett. You might—or might not—want to check it out. ;-]  

Policy pointers and sample language for addressing electronic communications, social media, blogging and scores of other topics are available in HR Policy Handbook, which comes as part of a subscription to Bloomberg BNA’s HR Decision Support Network. Start your free trial today.