Lifestyle

Can I be accused of sexual harassment if I use certain emojis?

Can I be accused of sexual harassment if I use certain emojis?
  • Emojis that convey messages around kissing, love, inappropriate flowers, or those that show broken-hearted symbols, have no place in the office.

  • Likewise emojis that show extreme anger, finger pointing, glaring eyes, zipped mouths, chest thumping or ghosts can be perceived to carry an element of bullying.

  • Equally, emojis that depict hearing, speaking or seeing no evil, can perpetrate a gossipy culture.

  • Symbols that emphasise a personal religious belief are mostly safe when used within a like-minded group.

I  have an interesting question. I love using emojis. They are fun to use, and make conversations a lot more lively. However, with the recent spotlight on sexual harassment at the workplace, I am scared of using them. Will using ideograms, say those that depict love or kissing, derail the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace?

Emojis are here to stay, and employers who wish them away need to rethink their strategy. Current office demographics show that there are about four generations of employees in most workplaces, and use of emojis will appeal to differently to different individuals depending on their perceptions and interpretations.

The older generation tend to hold this bias that those who use emojis for official communication are not serious, are less intelligent or even lazy. Emoji users however see themselves as a creative and innovative lot, and they view non-users as rigid and resistant to change. That said, emojis are powerful symbols with sometimes unpredictable consequences, just as words are. It is therefore important to exercise caution when using them, and to thinking carefully what message they communicate.

A thumbs up emoji in response to some instructions, is simple acknowledgment that the instructions have been received and understood. On the contrary, a thumbs up with a winky face may seem playful, and works best between peers. A thumbs up with an arm flexing emoji is likely to emphasise enthusiasm and support on the work ahead, or appreciation for what has been achieved.

You raise an important point because emojis can, and have been used to perpetrate not just sexual harassment, but bullying and other inappropriate behaviour too. Emojis that convey messages around kissing, love, inappropriate flowers, or those that show broken-hearted symbols, have no place in the office. Likewise emojis that show extreme anger, finger pointing, glaring eyes, zipped mouths, chest thumping or ghosts can be perceived to carry an element of bullying. Equally, emojis that depict hearing, speaking or seeing no evil, can perpetrate a gossipy culture. Symbols that emphasise a personal religious belief are mostly safe when used within a like-minded group.

These symbols can be misunderstood to imply that an approval has been granted, which can create confusion and expose the organisation to legal claims. A thumbs up sign is no guarantee for a signed agreement, unless there is a policy that says so. And neither is a smiley face a guarantee of good performance. Equally, a handshake emoji does not mean a business deal is contractual.

But when used appropriately, emojis can create a positive workplace vibe.

Mwikali Muthiani - Managing Partner, MillennialHR

@MwikaliN;