Businesses Beware: Emojis Can Have Legal Implications

February 26, 2018

A smiley face here. A winking face there. Emojis have become a common part of digital communications. They can help express mood, making sure that replies don’t come off as angry or impatient when no ill-will was intended. But, as some companies are beginning to see, emojis can also have legal implications. In fact, sending the wrong emoji can have serious financial consequences.

Emojis Can Show Intent.

Emojis are commonly used to show emotions, so it follows that they can also show intent – even in a legal sense. That was the conclusion of an Israeli court, according to Engadget. After a landlord posted an ad for an available property, a couple responded expressing interest and using a string of emojis that included a dancing woman and a smiley face. The landlord removed the ad and began negotiations. Then the couple stopped responding. The landlord sued, arguing that the emojis expressed “great optimism” and were misleading. The judge agreed, and the couple had to pay $2,200.

There Are Other Legal Risks.

Although the above lawsuit was only one case in one country, employers everywhere should take note. Emojis are a form of communication. We use them because they convey meaning. As with all forms of communication, consequences are possible.

These consequences could include client lawsuits as well as employment practices lawsuits. To see how, imagine the following situations:

  • A client is worried and sends a text message. The employee responds with a smiley face meant to calm the client. The client interprets this as meaning there is no problem and drops the subject. In fact, there is a problem, and when this becomes clear, the client sues.
  • An employee sends a coworker a message containing an eggplant emoji. The coworker interprets this as a form of sexual harassment.

Should Employers Ban Emojis?

Given the possible legal issues, some employers may be tempted to ban emojis entirely. However, this policy may not work out well. For one thing, emojis have become so common that banning them might prove close to impossible. Furthermore, emojis do serve a purpose if used appropriately.

If you do use emojis, keep the following warnings in mind.

  • Don’t assume emojis will be laughed off. Sure, they’re cartoon images, but this doesn’t mean they won’t be taken seriously. Your string of angry emojis could be interpreted as an actual threat. Likewise, your use of some emojis could be interpreted as sexual harassment.
  • Pay attention to associated meanings. Some emojis that seem innocent (like some vegetables and fruits) could be commonly used to convey other intentions. 
  • Beware of how others may interpret your emojis. Although emojis can help express meaning, they can also be vague. If your emojis confuse people – or worse, if they are misinterpreted – problems can follow. This is especially true when communicating with people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures.
  • Know that others may see different emojis. Emojis look different depending on the platform on which they’re viewed. Sometimes these differences can result in entirely different emotions being expressed. This article from the Independent explains the potential for miscommunication. 
  • Don’t depend on emojis. A smiley face emoji might help lighten the mood of an email, but a message consisting entirely or even largely of emojis may not get a clear message across.
  • Understand that some people view emojis as unprofessional. Although you might be able to get away with the occasional emoji when communicating with coworkers you know well, using them might send the wrong message to a new client, a boss or a hiring manager.

With emojis and many other workforce issues, employment practices can be tricky. Employment practices liability coverage is highly recommended.