Is It OK to Use Emoji at Work? :P

Is a Smiley Face a Good Idea in an Email to Your Boss?

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Is a smiley face emoji in an e-mail to your boss ever a good idea? It can be, says Trevor Foulk, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Emojis and emoticons can help the communication process in a few ways. First, they can contain rich information about the sender’s attitudes and intentions that can be tough to communicate in words.  Consistent with the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words,” emojis and emoticons can communicate quickly and simply things that might be hard to put into words.

Emojis can also be used as a tool to help the sender inspire the same emotions in the recipient that he or she is feeling. “If someone sends you the smiley face emoji, it could make you feel more positive – in a better mood and open to the positive signals that may be contained in that email,” says Foulk, who has studied how contagious emotions and behaviors can be, and subconscious cues that make people think or feel a certain way. 

Simply put, emojis can help communicate emotional content in a way that may be difficult without them. But they can work only if the recipient doesn’t open your email and think, “What the hell, an emoji?!,” says Foulk.  If that happens, the benefits of those clever symbols will likely be completely outweighed by their negative consequences.

The most important step in deciding whether to include emojis or emoticons in emails is weighing how the recipient will perceive them. If they could be a distraction, stay away from them, says Foulk. “If the person is distracted by the emoji, then any positive effect of the emoji in the communication will be lost. And at that point, you will suffer a reputational hit.”

If you don’t know how your smiley face will be received, you are taking a risk by including it. And if you don’t know enough to evaluate whether the recipient will be distracted by the emoji, err on the side of caution and refrain from breaking out the smiley face.

A study featured earlier this year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that using smiley-face emojis in formal work emails leave a negative first impression and can make people perceive you as less competent. But in informal settings, the effects were reversed with no impact of smileys on perceived competence and a positive impact on the perceived warmth of the sender.

Foulk advises looking at the organizational culture to determine whether emojis would be well-received. For example, informal environments like startups or even big tech companies such as Google might have the kind of work culture where employees use emojis all the time, but using them at a conservative investment bank is probably a no-no.

Start smileying

If you do work in an emoji-friendly workplace, start with the more benign symbols. Foulk says reserve more elaborate emojis for situations where you know the recipient can handle them. “Elaborate emojis like the skull and crossbones or the nauseated face can be useful in communicating information about the sender, but they also have the potential to be more distracting,” he points out.  “It’s more likely that one of those emojis would capture the recipient’s attention in a way that takes away from the flow of the conversation, so you’re more likely to lose points for using that one if the situation isn’t right. At the same time, those emojis can be more rich in message than the generic smiley/frowny face.” 

Let the context be your guide

Judge carefully. As people start sending you emojis back, you can consider using others. But Foulk says to keep going back to that overarching question: “Is the additional communication enrichment that I’m trying to send with inclusion of this emoji going to be canceled out by distractedness either by using the emoji at all or by which emoji I’ve chosen?”

When in doubt, leave them out?

If you are not sure how frowney-facing your boss will go over, the safest route is leaving it out. But emojis can play a helpful and important role in an email communication that could be interpreted in multiple ways. For example, says Foulk, if you have to send a note with criticism, but you want the recipient to understand you are not angry, a quick emoji could be really helpful. In that case, the threat of distraction is really low, because the recipient wants to know whether the sender is angry or trying to be helpfully constructive. The bump in communication richness won’t be outweighed by distractedness.

“Absent distraction, if used appropriately, emojis offer a richer representation of what you’re feeling,” says Foulk. “Emotional state is a complex thing, but I can communicate it to you in two emojis – as long as you don’t get hung up on the fact that I used emojis in the first place.”




About the Expert(s)

Dr. Trevor Foulk is an Assistant Professor of Management & Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida, and his Bachelors of Business Administration from the University of Massachusetts.

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