California residents might be amused that an emoji has been selected as the 2015 Oxford Dictionaries word of the year. However, the extensive use of emojis in electronic communications is probably no surprise. As this communication feature has pervaded personal interaction, it has spilled over into the workplace. Personal habits are difficult to stop for work activities, and this makes emoji use in the work realm quite likely. However, training may be important to ensure that employees don’t cause legal problems for their employers through the use of inappropriate emojis.

An emoji portrays a vivid concept with a simple cartoon image, which can be construed as a lack of professionalism at the minimum. Unfortunately, some emojis can communicate illegal activities such as sexual discrimination, disability biases and other discriminatory practices. In an instance of an exchange between a human resources leader and the supervisor of a disabled employee, for example, emojis were used to suggest that an employee’s inability to return immediately at the conclusion of FMLA time would be a game-over scenario. The smartphone exchange supported the later lawsuit that alleged FMLA violations.

In some cases, emojis can imply phrases that would otherwise be off limits for use in the work environment due to their legal implications. When words in such messages communicate responses that might not be construed as offensive on their own, emojis could communicate the opposite, suggesting that the words are insincere. A lack of understanding about emoji meanings could further confuse such a situation.

An individual who is facing problems because of the appropriate use of FMLA benefits might attempt to address such issues with superiors. If problems are not resolved, a human resources manager might be involved to resolve questions or concerns. If adverse action is taken inappropriately, legal action could be pursued, in which case, work-related communications involving the matter might be used as evidence.