Rubin Thomlinson Blog

Professional Communication

Emojis, exclamation points and ALL-CAPS: the pet-peeves and pitfalls of inter-office emails

email communication
© Alphaspirit | Dreamstime

In my time as an investigator, I have noticed a theme that arises in many workplace harassment investigations: Emails cause problems. I know what you’re thinking – almost every workplace relies on email! How can people communicate without it?

To be clear, I am not advocating for an end to email in the workplace. However, I want both employers and employees to be aware of the pitfalls of sending hasty, ill-thought-out emails, particularly when there may already be some tension in the workplace. I have encountered numerous situations where workplace conflict has needlessly escalated, simply because someone sent a brief email that was interpreted by the receiver as hostile or harassing.

Having encountered so many of these situations, it got me thinking: What, exactly, differentiates a good email from a bad one? I decided to seek out some answers.

I crafted a survey, asking people to rate the tone of a basic email communication, and then rate other versions of the email, with subtle changes. If you’re curious about what your answers would be compared to the average, feel free to take the survey now and then come back.

I also solicited verbal feedback from some of the participants.

The basic email communication was this:

Hi John,

I saw that you came in at 9:15 this morning. Keep in mind that the work day starts at 9am.

– Steve

Changes to the communication included wording choice, punctuation and use of emojis.

Some of the trends I noticed in the answers were predictable, and some surprised me.

  • People are more likely to rate the email as “hostile/aggressive” if it comes from an employee of the same level, than if it comes from a manager.

I asked for the email above to be rated on a scale of 1-5 (with 1 being “friendly” and 5 being “hostile/aggressive”) when it came from a fellow employee, and again when it was sent by a manager to an employee that reports to them.

Not only did responders rate the employee-to-employee communication as more aggressive, they rated it as FAR more aggressive. Over a third of the participants ranked the basic email as a 2 when it came from a manager (average 2.73). In contrast, over half the participants ranked it as a 4 out of 5 when it was sent by another employee (average 3.69).

This initially surprised me, because communications coming from a higher-up can often be seen as more intimidating. Some of the feedback I received from people who rated the employee-to-employee email higher on the “aggressive” scale included, “It’s not Steve’s job to watch when John comes in” and “Steve needs to mind his own business”. It appears the perceived tone of the email was influenced by the fact that people didn’t think Steve should be sending it in the first place.

With respect to those who rated the email from a manager as “hostile/aggressive”, a comment that came up repeatedly was, “Why couldn’t Steve just talk to him?” Many people thought this conversation would have been more respectful and less intimidating had the manager approached the employee for a one-on-one conversation.

  • People really do not like all-caps and exclamation points.

This was not a big surprise, but it was still interesting to see just how much punctuation and the use of all-caps influenced how people interpreted the tone of the email. I changed the basic email to include exclamation points:

Hi John,

I saw that you came in at 9:15 this morning! Keep in mind that the work day starts at 9am!!

– Steve

And then to include all-caps for emphasis:

Hi John,

I saw that you came in at 9:15 this morning! KEEP IN MIND that the work day starts at 9am!!

– Steve

Compared to the basic manager-employee communication, which most people rated an average of 2.73 in terms of “hostility/aggression”, the email with exclamation points rated between a 3 and 4 (average 3.23) and the addition of all-caps caused more than half of all participants to rate it as a 5 (average 4.38).

Several people told me it was “obvious” that all-caps should not be used in emails because it is perceived as “shouting”, so it’s surprising how often this is still seen in workplace communications. With respect to exclamation points, people mentioned that even one is “rude”, and more than one can be “hostile”, and “unnecessary overkill”.

  • Emojis are friendly, but people still don’t like them.

When I asked people what their biggest pet-peeve about workplace emails was, “smiley faces” was by far the most common answer.

I modified the basic email to include a few different emojis:

Hi John,

I saw that you came in at 9:15 this morning 😛  Keep in mind that the work day starts at 9am 🙂

– Steve

And:

Hi John,

I saw that you came in at 9:15 this morning 😉 Keep in mind that the work day starts at 9am 😉

– Steve

For anyone not well-versed in emojis, the first email contains the “tongue sticking out” and “smiley face” emojis, and the second contains two “wink” emojis.

Nearly half the responders rated the first email as a 1 on the “hostile/aggressive” scale (average 1.95) and the second came even lower (average 1.79). You’ll recall that the same email, without emojis, had an average rating of 2.73; the use of emojis was an effective way of reducing the perceived hostility of the email. So should we all be using emojis in our workplace communications?

Sadly, no. Coming across as friendly is important, but most of us also want to come across as professional. When asked to rate the professionalism of the above emails on a scale of 1-5 (with 1 being “not at all professional” and 5 being “very professional”), the results were dismal. The first email rated an average of 1.79 and the second an average of 1.64.

Another potential pitfall of emojis is that they can be misunderstood. A recent article in the Toronto Star discussed how confusion regarding the meaning of specific emojis can create difficulties in the workplace, and that was also evident in this survey. While most people rated the first email above as “friendly”, 6 people rated it as being closer to “hostile/aggressive”. One person told me they found it hostile because “the tongue-sticking-out face is mocking”. According to Urban Dictionary this can be true. This emoji can mean everything from “taunting” to “sheepish” to “mild disgust”, and without the benefit of other cues, it is up to the receiver to figure out the intention of the sender.

  • Gender dynamics can play a factor.

This is especially true when you throw in emoji-confusion, as discussed above. I changed the winky-face email above so that instead of being exchanged between two men, it was sent by a man to a woman:

Hi Angela,

I saw that you came in at 9:15 this morning 😉 Keep in mind that the work day starts at 9am 😉

– Steve

On the professionalism scale, this one only ranked as slightly less professional than the same email sent to a man, but the reactions of women who took the survey were drastically different. While they described the email sent to a man as “annoying” and “unprofessional”, the email sent to a woman was described as “creepy” and “condescending”.

How such an email is interpreted will obviously depend on the relationship between the parties, but this underscores the importance of thinking not only about how your email would be perceived by the average person, but how it will be perceived by the specific person you are sending it to.

  • “Please” goes a long way.

As does politeness in general. There was a general consensus among those taking this survey that taking a few extra seconds to be polite in an email is a good idea. How does this translate into the perception of emails as being harassing or not?

Compare the two emails below:

Hi John,

I saw that you came in at 9:15 this morning. Please keep in mind that the work day starts at 9am. If you need a change to your hours for some reason, please come see me. I’m happy to chat.

– Steve

And:

John,

You came in at 9:15 this morning. The work day starts at 9am. This is unacceptable. Come to my office to discuss.

– Steve

On a scale of 1-5 with 1 being “not at all harassing” and 5 being “very harassing” the first email rated an average of 1.22 and the second an average of 3.18, with 14% of responders rating it a 5.

Depending on the workplace relationship, there may be a need for directness in email communications, but in many cases a softening of the language used and the addition of a “please” or “thank you” can improve how the email is received.

Effective, respectful communication can not only prevent workplace conflicts, but can make it easier to investigate a workplace harassment complaint should one arise, since sorting through ambiguous email communications can be difficult and time-consuming. In general, managers and employees alike can benefit from taking a moment to re-read inter-office emails and think about how their communication is likely to be interpreted.

Michelle Bird


About the Author: Michelle Bird conducts workplace investigations into allegations of harassment, bullying, poisoned work environments, and other problematic workplace behaviour. Michelle also provides workplace investigation and human rights training to staff at all levels.