Career Tips

Email etiquette: Emojis and emoticons – in the workplace?

Posted: 03/05/2016

How did this happen?

Only a few years ago emojis were considered acceptable for social activity, but even then, many considered them a poor replacement for good communication skills. They were never considered acceptable for professional communications.

How times have changed! And the email etiquette rules seem to have changed too.

Today, emojis and emoticons are everywhere, and people love them. Even so, appropriate usage still depends on your situation, particularly emoticons for email. Usage is changing so fast that rules haven’t had the chance to be made. As ever in life, common sense is the best regulator. Here are some guidelines and tips to use your emojis and emoticons sensibly in email correspondence – and remember to always use your best judgement before hitting the send button!

Technical details

For those who are unclear, there are emoticons, and there are emojis. (Millennials, you who were born in between the 80’s and 2000’s, you may laugh, but some people don’t know this stuff.) For all you ‘mature’ folk out there, let’s explain the difference.


Emoticons were the predecessors of the emoji – those little keyboard winks and smiley faces that kind of crept their way into our inboxes. Yes, those. Who knew that the old email etiquette rules would be broken so readily and quickly?

Emoticons were a good icebreaker when delivering something that could be grossly misinterpreted. For example, you might send an email to the IT department and say,

“Nope. I’ve done what you said. Seven times  But it’s still not working.”

Email etiquette at work translation: “You absolutely need to help me because I have a serious problem here, but I don’t hate you. I’m trying to be nice.”


Emojis are those colourful and entertaining illustrations of multiracial faces, food, plants, and utterly useful, how-could-we-have-ever-lived-without images such as toilet bowls, love-struck faces, Latino dancers, skateboards, champagne bottles and Martinis.

What’s not to love?

Enter: professional appropriateness

Using any of these symbols boils down to common sense, the accepted business email etiquette in your workplace, and what type of work you do. You should also consider the age group of those you are communicating with.

The biggest difference is that millennials feel more comfortable about expressing their personalities while baby boomers and Gen X feel they should swallow their feelings and personalities and behave in the most professional way possible.

Now, as millennials are the fastest growing generation on the work front, emojis are most definitely becoming a thing, with their cool cousin the GIF coming along for the ride.

A few tips for using Emojis and Emoticons

Keep age in mind

If you want to communicate effectively in business, it makes sense to consider the environment that you’re working in. If the majority of your email correspondence is going to be with people who are 40+, it might be best to ration your emoticons wisely. It’s fine to share an emoticon joke where applicable – but gen X-ers (and certainly not Baby Boomers) don’t make a habit of corresponding seriously with emoticons. Particularly the further up the management chain you go. It’s probably fair to say that there isn’t a single 50 year old CEO issuing instructions about a corporate restructure with emoticons.

Consider the culture

Remember, your communication style is a reflection of your professionalism. Older generations may not appreciate your ever-so-amusing line of winking faces, disco dancers and toilet bowls. Keep this in mind if you want to be taken seriously. These generations are likely to have different expectations and standards business email etiquette, so it is best you toe the line.

That said, a different approach may be entirely valid with in a skew towards a younger workplace demographic. This is where the lines are blurred. If emoticons and emojis are a part of the established culture in a younger team, you may even get brownie points for joining in. You may choose to be more personal and fun with some of your colleagues and feel that it’s okay. There is an argument that doing so can not only bring colleagues closer together, but boost team spirit and productivity. Use your judgment wisely and set your own personal email etiquette rules in keeping with your ambitions, and the business culture you’re working in.

When there’s serious news

Serious news should never be delivered through email or text. It should be delivered verbally, and where possible, face to face. If you do send serious news through a digital medium, this is not a time for “sad faces” or any symbols denoting some tragedy. That would be poor email etiquette, if not just downright insensitive.

Set of emoticons, emoji isolated on white background, vector illustration.

Practice discretion

Regardless of your age, don’t fill your emails with emojis. It does give the impression that you have too much time on your hands. Text messages, however, are a little different and considered more acceptable – especially as one image can, used appropriately, clarify the message or add a touch of personality.

Bottom line: Emojis and emoticons for email are fun. When used in moderation, they’re acceptable with certain demographics. But if you’re uncertain, remember the golden rule: when in doubt, don’t.


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