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Emojis in Work Emails and Digital Comms: Small Images, Big Consequences

A sick emoji, looking as though it is about to vomit.

Want to use a vomit emoji in work emails? Take care when on the job — what we write is always up for scrutiny, whether it’s a company compliance solution or someone literally watching over your shoulder.

That’s the takeaway for three Columbia University officials who were placed on leave after sending disparaging mobile phone messages to each other during a discussion about antisemitism on campus, and are now on indefinite leave and have been removed from their positions, reports the New York Times. The discussion centered around Jewish life on campus and concerns for student safety amid protests over Israel’s war with Gaza, which followed the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, according to the Washington Free Beacon, which first reported the news. 

The comments included a dismissive text about the executive director of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, suggestions that Jewish leaders were using the event as an opportunity for fundraising, and two vomit emojis to characterize a 2023 op-ed, “Sounding the Alarm,” by the campus rabbi. 

The administrators —  all deans — were identified by the Washington Free Beacon as Susan Chang-Kim, Cristen Kromm, and Matthew Patashnick. The texts were captured in photos that were taken surreptitiously over Chang-Kim’s shoulder by an audience member and later obtained by the Free Beacon.

The incident underscores the importance of considering the tone of the language we use at work. While it’s rare that someone would take a photo of our phones over our shoulders, it’s worth considering the fact that what might seem like a harmless joke to one person can convey deep disrespect to another. Emojis aren’t merely comical images — these seemingly innocuous symbols can carry weight.

This is only the latest in a string of mistakes made by accomplished university officials and leaders in the field of opportunity and inclusion. 

In December of 2023, University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill stepped down after being evasive in a Congressional hearing about whether students who called for the genocide of Jews  should be disciplined. 

A month later, Claudine Gay resigned as Harvard University’s president amid allegations of plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation and after declining to state unambiguously whether students who called for the genocide of Jews were violating campus policy. 

The same month, an in-depth examination by the New York Times of the nationwide movement against the “wokeism” of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (D.E.I.) programs showed that while think tank activists and academics argue for diversity of thought and intellectual freedom, privately, some expressed intolerant views of liberal ideologies and anti-discrimination laws, and advocated for traditional gender roles. 

The mismatch was by examining 5,000 pages of emails and correspondence. Some views expressed in the private emails ranged from “a healthy society requires patriarchy” to “Indians are Asians who are white-adjacent so at the bottom of the totem poll” [sic] and that Asian countries don’t have same-sex marriage, but “more wholesome policies like prison” for gays.

Momentary lapses in judgment around how we communicate can have long-term repercussions. Ethical lapses can overshadow our achievements, damage our organizations, and spur costly litigation. Next time you’re about to crack a joke, express a discriminatory statement, or include emojis in your digital communications before hitting “send,” take a moment to reflect. Emails and texts aren’t as innocent as we think. 

This report has been updated since it was originally published.

Amanda Nurse is the editorial and operations coordinator at Alphy.

Reflect AI by Alphy is an AI communication compliance solution that detects and flags language that is harmful, unlawful, and unethical in digital communication. Alphy was founded to reduce the risk of litigation from harmful and discriminatory communication while helping employees communicate more effectively.


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