Happy Valentine's Day: Employers Worry About Sexual Emoji Harassment

Forbid the eggplants, but leave the winking faces alone, please.


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Employers may frown on male employees sending unsolicited flowers or candy to specific female co-workers. But what about inappropriate emojis?

"This year…many employers are focusing on the ever-evolving ways employees communicate with one another, including through the use of emojis in text messages and other electronic communications," Kelly Hughes reports in a National Law Review article about the steps employers should take to avoid "a new Valentine's Day conundrum."

Emojis' meanings, Hughes writes,

have become so complicated that there is an emoji encyclopedia to help the less savvy decipher the symbols. Similarly, with the cultural move toward a broader view of sexual harassment, emojis that have been viewed as generally innocuous may gain newer and more inappropriate connotations, thus opening the door for allegations of sexual harassment. For example, a wink face following a joke could be perceived as a proposition, a tongue out face could be interpreted as an inappropriate gesture, and let's not even get into the new meaning of the eggplant emoji.

If you don't know what the eggplant emoji means, the URL of this Vice article gives it away.

Male employees shouldn't be sending eggplant emojis to random female coworkers, any more than they should be sending random people flowers. But—and here's the critical thing—the language of the emoji is still in flux. A lot of people might not know what the eggplant emoji means. They might not understand which emojis communicate flirtatiousness. They wouldn't have necessarily caught on to these double entendres and hidden messages, because the rules and boundaries aren't sufficiently established yet.

That being the case, it seems both unwise and unfair for employers to get bent too far out of shape about improper emoji usage. Hughes says the best practice is to make sure supervisors know their duty to report harassment—"including inappropriate emoji usage"—to the proper HR channels. But overzealously enforcing such a mandate could ensnare employees who had no idea they were committing a social media faux paux. We know what such an environment would look like: It would resemble certain college campuses, where a hypersensitivity to offense and a fear of landing on the wrong side of Title IX, the federal sexual harassment law, have threatened the free expression rights of countless students and professors.

It would be easier to shrug off concerns that the movement against sexual harassment has gone too far if we weren't seriously considering an emoji reporting policy that forbids both the eggplant and the winking face.