HR Management & Compliance

The Harassment Risk of Emoji

We may think they are relegated to the realm of the teenage and the tween. We may deny using them ourselves. But the fact is that emoji—cartoon representations of emotions—have become commonplace in our digital world. “Seventy-one percent of Americans use visual expressions such as emojis, stickers or GIFs when texting or using mobile messaging apps, according to a 2017 survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Tenor, a mobile GIF sharing platform,” says Max Mihelich in an article for Workforce.emoji

Beware the Seeming Innocence of the Emoji

Maybe we use them because they are quick. Maybe it’s because we think they are funny or cute. And that’s fine in our personal lives. But employers and employment attorneys are increasingly wary of the potential for a seemingly innocuous emoji to lead to claims of sexual harassment. Part of the reason for this wariness is because emoji can mean different things to different people.
Many sexual harassment claims involve the unintended perception on the part of the message recipient of what was said or done by the message sender. “Employment law experts agree that it’s the subjective nature of emojis that can create issues in the workplace,” says Mihelich. “Simply put, emojis are a form of slang and will mean different things to different people.”

A Gateway to Sexual Harassment?

Mihelich notes that many managers are concerned over the use of emoji primarily because they can convey a lack of professionalism or even incompetence. And unprofessionalism is often a gateway to sexual harassment. “Using a smiley face or a winky face at the end of an email to lighten the tone or emphasize a joke does not necessarily qualify as sexual harassment,” he writes. “However, if communications between the harasser and the victim contain emojis, the pervasiveness or severity of the emoji use could be evidence of a hostile work environment.”
The bottom line: It’s not necessarily the case that employers should take a hard line and ban the use of emoji in the workplace. But they need to be cognizant of this new and increasingly popular element of online communication and the potential it can have for creating legal liability when it comes to claims of sexual harassment.
Have you addressed the use of emoji in your employee handbook and policies? Maybe it’s time that you did.