Why emoji in the workplace get a frowny face

A smiley face isn't always simply a smiley face.

Emoji are set to get more complicated, with Apple (AAPL) this week releasing a dozen new emoji that will appear on its devices later this year -- including a breastfeeding mother and one called "exploding head" -- which the tech company said were designed to "make any message more fun."

Yet legal experts say the proliferation of emoji also delivers a host of new problems that may give businesses their own versions of exploding heads. 

Take the lawsuit that hung over the interpretation of an emoji. An Israeli couple searching for an apartment sent an enthusiastic text loaded with emoji (including a smiley face) and a message that they wanted to rent the house. But they never did take it, so he sued them for breaking a promise they would rent from him. He was awarded more than $2,000.

In the workplace, misunderstandings may arise from everything from the meaning of an emoji -- such as when an eggplant means far more than a vegetable -- and racial or gender issues. 

"Just because you can send emoji doesn't mean you should," said Michelle Lee Flores, an employment law expert at Cozen O'Connor, a law firm in Los Angeles. "What if I did a thumbs-up emoji and accidentally hit a black one, but as a supervisor, I'm a white guy sending it to someone of color? The employee could be saying, 'What are you saying to me? Are you trying to be funny?'" 

Many emoji have sexual meanings, which, if not known to the sender, can open up a host of problems. New emoji tend to be more specialized, such as Apple's breastfeeding mom, which may raise the risk of misunderstanding if the icon isn't intuitive or widely used, noted Santa Clara University Law School professor Eric Goldman in a recent paper on emoji and the law. 

"As new emojis proliferate, it will take time for users learn the meaning of the new emojis," Goldman wrote. "Misunderstanding new words or slang meanings isn't novel, but we should expect to encounter it frequently with emojis due to the dynamism of the emoji ecosystem."

Not surprisingly, millennials are inveterate emoji users, according to a new survey from Microsoft (MSFT) and the research firm YouGov. Almost nine out of 10 millennials use emoji at work with co-workers whom they consider friends, although they're less comfortable using them with bosses or customers, the survey found. That could reflect the difference between social standing as well as generations, especially if superiors tend to be members of the Generation X or baby boomer groups. 

The impulses for inserting emojis into emails, texts or Slack messages may range from wanting to personalize a message to conveying an emotion, but in all cases, the sender and recipient may interpret that icon very differently. Recipients can sometimes read more emotion into emoji than the sender intended, amplifying problems, Goldman noted.

Emoji can also be difficult to interpret, leading to misunderstandings. In Goldman's paper, he notes that Apple's "unamused face" can be viewed as expressing everything from disappointment to suspicion. 

"Different cultures assign different meanings to facial expressions," Goldman wrote. "Also, facetious, sarcastic and parodic meanings are notoriously difficult to communicate online, and recipients or third party may not appreciate those meanings when senders use face emojis."

Should workers simply avoid emoji? Not necessarily, but give some thought to how they may be interpreted, especially if you're straying from the tried-and-true basics like a thumb's up or a smiley face, Flores said. She also recommends sticking with the original yellow color of emoji or using the color closest to your own skin tone. 

"We want to use emoji because it spurs creativity, but we still want to do it with good sense and keeping in mind that ultimately we don't want to offend people," she noted. 

Already, a few cases have found their way into the legal system that involve the interpretation of emoji, such as one employment case involving a worker allegedly abusing her medical leave. Her managers included happy face emoticons when they wrote about firing her, which the court said could signal the bosses were happy to have any reason to fire her. 

Said Flores: "It's a matter of time" before more lawsuits emerge.