HR Strange But True

Don’t Make That Face at Me!

Are you guilty of using emoji in work communications? I must confess, being a Millennial, I’ve used the smiley face in plenty of work-related e-mails and plenty of work e-mails that go out to other professionals not in this company. My rule of thumb is if someone else uses it first, that person won’t think less of me if I use it, too. However, new research is showing that if you use emoticons in work communications, you’re basically saying you’re incompetent.


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In the article, “The Dark Side of a Smiley: Effects of Smiling Emoticons on Virtual First Impressions,” researchers Ella Glikson, Arik Cheshin, and Gerben A. van Kleef set out to see how first impressions were impacted when using emoticons in e-mail and text communications. In an abstract of the article, the researchers ask, “In computer-mediated communication, which is primarily text-based, the “smiley” (☺) constitutes the digital representation of a smile. But is a smiley a suitable replacement for a smile?”

The researchers conducted three experiments to examine the impact the smiley face had on virtual first impressions. The researchers say, “Our findings provide first-time evidence that, contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence.… The adverse effects of smiley use are moderated by the formality of the social context and mediated by perceptions of message appropriateness. These results indicate that a smiley is not a smile. The findings have implications for theorizing on the social functionality of virtual emotional expressions.”

In an e-mail to CNN, Glikson says, “I was very optimistic about the positive power of emoticons. But our initial results surprised me. So we focused on the specific effect of smileys on first impression in work context, and our results were very consistent across different experiments.”

The researchers also found that while using emoji in work communications made you seem less competent, it also made it harder for others to work together. “These lower perceptions of competence reduced the recipient’s information sharing behavior,” the researchers said.

The experiments required 549 participants from 29 different countries to read various e-mails, some with emoji and some without, to gauge an opinion on the e-mail sender. The research concluded that when sending out formal e-mails, it’s best to avoid using emoji. Glikson says, “We think that as emoji evolve into a language, we need to carefully learn the rules and the limitations of this language.”

While the researchers do not specifically list what rules and limitations of emoji use are, there is someone who can help! Keith Broni is an emoji translator, and in this role, he helps companies navigate the use of emoji for business purposes. In an e-mail to CNBC, Broni says, “Emojis allow us to imbue digital messages with the non-verbal cues inherent in face-to-face interaction: they allow us to signify the emotional context of a statement which would normally be conveyed in vocal tone, pose or gesture, rather than just the words themselves.”

While Broni’s statement contradicts the research findings, it’s worth pointing out that, yes, a smile emoji is not the same as a physical smile, but it does put off the same sentiment. Given that text does not convey tone, the use of emoji and font styles (i.e., boldface and italics) can help relay a message more clearly.  As more and more young workers are entering the workforce, companies must be prepared to adapt to their communication techniques and styles, and with that will come the onslaught of emoji.

Melissa BlazejakMelissa Blazejak is a Senior Web Content Editor at BLR. She has written articles for and the HR Daily Advisor websites and is responsible for the day-to-day management of and She has been at BLR since 2014. She graduated with a BA of Science, specializing in Communication, from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2008. Most recently, she graduated in 2014 with a MS of Educational Technology.