Harassment By Emoji? It’s Possible


The uses of so-called emojis have been in use almost as long as we’ve had the Internet. Initially, they were used in a casual way to depict emotions that are often not well conveyed online. In the business world, using emojis was almost always frowned upon as being ‘unprofessional’. Later as the practice became more widespread, some businesses relaxed on the use of emojis a little.  Now, however, according to an article by Max Mihelich on the Workforce.com website, the use of emojis in business communications has other causes for concern.

Employment attorneys are now encouraging their clients to place policies regarding the use of emojis within their employee handbooks.  While the use of these seemingly harmless pictographs may be perfectly acceptable for Facebook and private text messages, they could be viewed in a far less positive light within a business environment.

The Challenge of Emojis for HR Managers

For workers who are trying to build rapport with a manager or supervisor, using an emoji should probably be curbed as much as possible. In an article that appeared on the Grammarly blog, Joanna Cutrara suggests that while some may feel that the use of emojis can sometimes show the tone in a communication is meant to be friendly, using them really does nothing to convey warmth and maybe even undermine an impression of competency.

From a legal standpoint, according to Scott McIntyre, a partner at BakerHostetler, there has been a marked uptick in the number of cases which involve the use of both emojis and so-called ‘likes’ on social media that have appeared in harassment claims. “Such communications have been cited by employers as evidence of a hostile environment,” he said. Conversely, according to McIntire, employers which become embroiled in such lawsuits will, “…. sometimes rely on such symbols used by employees in a positive fashion as evidence that a claimed hostile environment did not rise to a level required to constitute actionable harassment.”

Legal experts in employment law believe that emojis have become a type of slang which can mean different things – often depending on the intention of the sender and the interpretation of the recipient.

The use of emojis can be disastrous in certain situations and cultural contexts. According to Jay Holland, attorney for the law firm Joseph, Greenwald and Laake, something as seemingly innocent as the hands-up emoji which is often used in American culture as a sign of praise, in China it means something else entirely. “… if you’re doing business there,” Holland explains, it’s offensive. It means stay away from me.” This is not the kind of impression anyone wants to convey in a business situation.

Sometimes emojis are used to depict sexual connotations and have ended up as a part of sexual harassment cases. Employment attorneys have indicated a sharp increase in sexual harassment cases that stem from emojis that were included in emails and text messages that some workers were left feeling that they were in a hostile work environment.

Of course, so much depends upon company culture and the situation. Certainly, a tech startup or a close-knit team of creatives usually won’t operate or communicate in the same way as a law firm or other highly professional type of business. Susan Wilson, attorney of the e-law practice group at Constangy Brooks, Smith & Prophete suggests that all employers include policies regarding the use of emojis and instruct workers to bear in mind how they conduct themselves in all forms of communication, including emails and social media can not only reflect on them but the company as well.

When to Use or Not Use Emojis

It is probably a good policy to limit the use of emojis in any business communication if you want to convey a sense of competency. If you don’t have a close relationship with a coworker or are sending communications to your boss or superior, omit the use of emojis in your communications entirely. It’s much better to use words to concisely convey your message rather than relying on what amounts to pictographic slang.

No matter what industry you work in, it’s a good idea to pay attention to every aspect of your organization’s culture both internally as well as to clients and peers. Be sure the kind of impression you want to create is the right one.

At NetPEO, we understand that company policies regarding social media and communications are put in place for the good of the company, its culture and the image that is projected in today’s marketplace.  

Companies often choose NetPEO for their human resource needs so that they can focus on the things that they do best.  We offer a wide range of services which include payroll, employee benefits, liability management for employers, brokerage services, and employee leasing. Contact us today to discuss your company’s current needs and to schedule a free assessment. Let NetPEO help you with all of your employee needs.