Emojis in Email: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

A graphic of two emojis in email, one smiling and one frowning

Written communication can be tricky for even the savviest office professionals. After all, it’s difficult to convey the tone or emotion behind an idea when inflection, facial expressions and body language are absent from a conversation.

Thankfully, emojis — those small digital icons used to express an idea or feeling — can help add nuance and intention to nonverbal communication. And while using emojis in email, text and social media has become commonplace socially over the past few years, some administrative pros are left wondering whether it’s OK to use them in email and workplace communication.

Well, it depends. In a recent OfficeTeam survey, senior managers were asked how they feel when someone uses emojis or emoticons in workplace communication. Here are the results:

  • 21 percent said it’s perfectly acceptable to use emojis in email and other materials
  • 40 percent said it’s fine in certain situations
  • 39 percent said it’s unprofessional

Clearly, this is not a black-and-white issue, even for those in charge. So to help you navigate these murky pictographic waters, here are a few factors to keep in mind:

When it's OK to use emojis in email

Emojis aren’t all fun and games. They can serve a valuable purpose when it comes to toneless written communication, acting as a cue for how information should be interpreted when something is awkward or could be taken the wrong way. That’s why, not surprisingly, the happy face is the most often used emoji.

Will Schwalbe, co-author of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better, says that in the absence of tone, people typically read negativity into workplace communication. People often project their own emotions onto an email at work, as well.

So emojis in email can provide clues for how the information you’re sending should be taken. And they can also act as time-saving shorthand in more casual conversations such as internal instant messaging among your team.

Check out our tips to help you design and compose emails at work that look good and get read.

Additionally, using emojis in email and other workplace communications can show that you’re up to date with current communication trends. If that’s key to fitting in or moving up at your company, consider using them when appropriate.

If you have a younger staff and want to make a personal connection, emojis may be one way to do it, especially given that millennials now make up the greatest portion of the workforce. (Be aware, though, that not all millennials don’t use emojis, of course.)

When to avoid emojis in email

Just don’t rely on emojis as a crutch. For instance, don’t use them to tone down a stern note, or you risk sending a mixed message. Doing so is akin to writing, “I have something to say that you won’t like, but I’m really a nice person so don’t be mad at me!” You’d never write that, especially in an email at work. So think about why you’re using the emoji before hitting Send.

Also, never use an emoji if you’re not sure what it means. New emojis are being introduced all the time — some brands even have their own personalized sets of emojis — so be cautious when using new ones for the firs time.

Why you need to know your audience

Every office has a dress code. And typically, people in senior positions adhere to a more conservative interpretation of that code. The same is often true for using emojis in email. You may work in a casual office environment, but that doesn’t mean you should take the same approach to using emojis with the CEO as you would with fellow administrative professionals.

For example, in our survey, 22 percent of workers said they limit their use of emojis to casual exchanges with coworkers and not formal communications with higher-ups. So it may be OK to use them with peers you work with often or within your department, but not with your superiors or those outside your department.

If you work for a small company or a startup, you might find that using emojis in email is acceptable internally but a no-no with clients or vendors, just as you might wear jeans day to day but step up your wardrobe for a client meeting.

In short, it’s important to know your audience when it comes to workplace communication — but don’t make assumptions. Always think about the recipient’s style and your rapport. When in doubt, follow the lead of the person you’re corresponding with.

Want to master the art of professional communication? Don’t miss our tips to develop assertive writing and speaking skills.

Learn More


More articles on workplace communication