Should Emojis Be Used in Business Communications?

Getting feedback when you need it should be easier than ever with our many communication channels in the modern world. But it’s not easier if we start substituting pictures for words.

From my own experience, and what I have read, emojis are now an acceptable form of business communication. You ask repeated questions, or offer repeated information, and you get a thumbs-up emoji every time. Sound familiar?

I saw in Harvard Business Review that experts now feel there are many benefits to using emojis. Tomoko Yokoi and Jennifer Jordan note that emojis can connect you to your team, including allowing leaders to get a deeper insight into how their team is feeling; build a leader’s own “cognitive empathy”; allow them to model “appropriate emotions”; and reinforce the company culture.

Words Matter More Than Emojis

I see those benefits, but I also see the irritation of sharing information and getting nothing but a thumbs-up emoji. Time is of the essence for many of us, and in short supply, but words, rather than emojis, are still often the best choice.

For example, if I exhaust myself and send a project to a manager, and text or e-mail to let them know the work is complete, and get nothing but that annoying cartoon thumbs-up, I feel like I’ve gotten a communication short-shrift. I’d much prefer a response along the lines of: “Thanks! I appreciate all the effort you put into that project. Let’s meet up next week to discuss how we’re going to roll it out to maximize the benefits.”

Sometimes an employee is sharing with a manager a mishap or personal difficulty, for which an emoji response feels brusque and insensitive. For example, the employee might text or e-mail: “I’ll be in about an hour late today. My basement flooded. I have to let the clean-up service we hired in before heading to the office.” Imagine that employee getting nothing but the wordless thumbs-up or smiley face emoji. How about this instead?: “I’m so sorry to hear that, Molly! Don’t worry about rushing in. In fact, let me know if you need to take the day for yourself to deal with this. It sounds like a mess!”

I’m reminded of when young children are instructed by parents to “use your words.” How did we get to a place where many adults need to be reminded of this? If a child consistently responded to questions and comments by giving no response other than a thumbs-up, we would worry about communication deficits. Images can be powerful, such as when underscoring the scale of a disaster, and sending photos of the aftermath of a hurricane or tornado. However, there are times when a thoughtful sentence or two is superior. When an employee shares information related to a work accomplishment or personal difficulty, emojis are insufficient, and come across as uncaring.

Sensitivity Training in Communication

With emojis in lieu of words now a standard form of business communication, I wonder if sensitivity training in communication is necessary. The modern manager, who may have eschewed phone calls with loved ones for quick texts, may not understand that employees can benefit from words put together to form communication that expresses caring.

This training could consist of role-play exercises in which a trainer plays an employee offering information or commentary, and the manager would be tasked with showing how they would respond—determining whether this is a situation that would benefit from words or whether an emoji would suffice.

There are times when the information the employee has texted or e-mailed relates to a need for reassurance that they have done the right thing. Let’s say the employee had to make decisions about how to manage a difficult client. They think they did the right thing, but aren’t 100 percent certain. They don’t want any fallout from the decision made, and want to make sure their boss is not taken by surprise by their actions. So they send a text after not being able to reach the boss any other way. The boss sends the thumbs-up emoji. Is that a good response in this situation? Or would this have been better?: “You did the right thing, Judy. This is a hard situation. We’ll talk about it more when I’m in the office tomorrow, and figure out how we want to approach working with this client going forward.”

The Work World Is Not a Picture Book

Getting feedback when you need it should be easier than ever with our many communication channels in the modern world. But it’s not easier if we start substituting pictures for words. As optimistic as some people try to be, this world is not a children’s picture book.

What have you noticed about your employees’ and managers’ use of emojis in business communications? What kind of training, if any, could they benefit from to make sure emojis are not used when well-thought-out words would be best?