Things you should never put in a work email: Office gossip, a racist “joke” or anything that could be construed as NSFW. (Especially that last one.) But emojis? In most cases, they’re just not that big a deal.
Those little smiley faces in professional communications might look unprofessional to some observers, but the times, they are a-changing. Emojis are “fine in moderation” at most offices, according to career expert Alison Green.
And it’s a good thing, because they’re increasingly common. According to a 2014 survey by Cotap, a San Francisco-based workplace messaging app, 76% of American workers have used an emoji in professional communications—most often the smiley face (64%), but also the thumbs up (16%), winking face (7%) and heart (3%).
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should start ending every sentence with the tongue-out emoticon. Those innocent little smileys can still wreak havoc on your workplace reputation when used incorrectly. When used during an introductory conversation, “smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence,” according to a 2017 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Ella Glikson, a post-doctoral fellow in Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and the study’s lead researcher, says that’s because you’re creating a first impression. “When you have no prior knowledge of the person who communicates with you in the work context, you’re [likely trying to] learn about the person as much as possible based on the email they wrote. Many people still think that emoticons are not workplace appropriate, so using them could be a sign of not understanding the norm.”
But once you’re settled in at work—and have determined your office is a pro-emoji space—it’s okay to add a smiley face to help make your tone clear. Just don’t go overboard. And definitely don’t use them with new people.
“Emojis are… colorful and playful and can save us the effort of typing long words. [But] they could mean different things to different people, and they don’t make a great first impression at work,” Gibson says. “Relaying on emoji instead of words could lead to major misunderstandings and misperceptions regarding one’s character, so use them carefully.”