I recall the first informal use of an acronym I received in a business communication.  It was the summer of 2011 and I was working on a lawsuit where opposing counsel sent me an email that ended with “LOL”.  I was quite disturbed because although we had a congenial relationship, I thought it was a bit much for opposing counsel to close the email with “Lots of Love.”  I immediately printed out the email and took it to the attorney in charge of our office and explained my concern.  After laughing out loud, he told me that is exactly what “LOL” means.  Although I was embarrassed to display how far behind I was with communicating in the 21st century, part of me has always thought that my interpretation wasn’t that ridiculous.  In fact, in preparing this article, I did some quick research and found that today, “LOL” can mean “Laughing out Loud”, “Lots of Love”, and “Lesbian On-Line”.

The truth is when discussing shorthand communication symbols, we all receive texts or emails that leave us    (see also ( (I) ) >”, which is supposed to be the emoticon for “thinking and scratching head”).  The prospective complications in using such imprecise communication in a business setting are self-evident and the interpretation of these symbols is increasingly an issue in lawsuits.

Not surprisingly, judges and juries are often required to interpret the meaning of emojis or emoticons in lawsuits that have more of a “personal” component such as sexual harassment or defamation actions.   However, these issues have also made their way into everything from simple landlord tenant disputes to complex commercial lawsuits.  With the arrival of millennials in the work place and the increasing use of these shorthand languages, businesses should take some affirmative steps to emphasize the importance of precise communication while still embracing this new way of communicating.

  1. Get acquainted with emojis and emoticons.  If you’re like me and only use the most familiar emojis when texting friends and family, spend some time researching emojis and emoticons.  Trust me, younger employees in your organization are miles ahead of you and are using them in business communications every day.  Sites such www.emojipedia.org or www.emojimeanings.net can be a good place to start.
  2. Revise or develop a communication policy incorporating shorthand communication techniques.  This is where it can get tricky.  Policies that completely forbid the use of emojis and emoticons in business communications are tough to police and may be seen as ostracizing younger employees.  Develop a common sense policy emphasizing the importance of recognizing situations where precise communication is required.  For example, a smiley face sent in the context of a contract negotiation could unintentionally lead the other party to believe you’ve accepted a critical term.  Or that same smiley face with heart-shaped eyes  could be misinterpreted by a fellow employee or subordinate as a sexual advance.
  3. Devote time to train both new and current employees about the policy.  Training should highlight the general importance of simply being thoughtful about the idea you are attempting to communicate.  If the recipient, who is familiar with the context, is likely to be confused, then a detached third party, such as a judge or jury, will certainly have difficulty construing the meaning.
  4. Communicate with employees in your organization that are most acquainted with these shorthand symbols.  This is no different than any other policy or training endeavor – a heavy-handed, top-down approach will not be effective.  Talk with employees as you develop a policy and get their input on how to best approach training about communications.

Remember this discussion should take place in the context of an overall communication strategy, so take time to conduct face-to-face meetings rather than sending emails that are more subject to being misinterpreted.  Be sure to emphasize that any policy about the use of shorthand symbols is in everyone’s best interest and only heightens effective communication. 

If you need legal advice concerning a communications policy or other issue facing your design or construction firm, please contact the attorneys of Gibbes Burton, LLC at (864) 327-5000.