Imagine if the above emojis, casually fired off in a text message (or in an Instagram or Facebook post) to a friend or colleague, could be used against you as evidence of workplace harassment?
Or if another combination of cartoon-like representations of emotions could be used as proof of defamation?
Or if inclusion of a face emoji with its tongue sticking out could preclude a reasonable reader from concluding the potentially defamatory statement was anything other than a joke?
Some disbelieving readers may think, never! But, not so fast. In fact, there are a growing number of cases, both in the United States and elsewhere, where emoji images have been entered as evidence requiring the judge or the jury (as the case may be) to interpret what exactly was meant by the emoticon. But therein lies the issue — what exactly does the combination of emojis (or a small digital image or icon used to express an idea, or emotion) in any given text or communication mean? There is, after all, no fixed emotional resonance or clear dictionary definition for interpreting them. So, while one colleague may interpret the smirking face with a beer mug as nothing more than an innocent invitation to grab a drink, another colleague may interpret that same message to have a potentially sinister motive. It is this very subjective nature of emojis, and the double-meaning of some emojis, that can cause issues in the workplace and elsewhere.
So what is a business to do? Whether you or emojis, it is important to recognize they are here to stay and part of mainstream communication. Regulating their use in the same way that other communications are regulated may be an advisable business practice. For example, consider whether there should be rules governing emojis in office communications. If so, review and update your employee handbook.