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E-mail Smiley Faces Not Suitable for Most Business Correspondence

Study shows smileys evoke images of feminine qualities and may produce negative feelings for applicants for traditional male jobs
by Clif Boutelle, Public Relations
Using smiley faces in professional correspondence, especially job application cover e-mails, may result in frowns, says a North Carolina State University industrial and organizational psychologist. 
Lori Foster Thompson, an associate professor of psychology and senior research fellow at the NCSU, wondered what kind of impression smiley faces inserted into job correspondence had on those who reviewed the e-mails.
Conceding that it is difficult to gauge the number of smiley faces used in professional correspondence as well as opinions about them, Thompson said there is considerable anecdotal evidence that the little faces (called emoticons) show up in application e-mails and other correspondence.
“I’ve been told that applicants would never resort to smiley faces, and I’ve been told that it happens quite often, so it’s a mixed reaction. And there is little research about their impact that I’ve found on this topic,” she said.
Thompson and her colleagues, Alexandra Mullins of NC State, Brian Robinson of George Mason University, and Jamin Halberstadt of the University of Otago in New Zealand, conducted a study of 218 students to gain some insight about how impressions of job applicants are formed. They distributed application materials for an internship in finance, half of which had cover e-mails that used smiley faces.
They presented their findings in a poster session at the SIOP conference in Atlanta in April.
Participants were asked to rate the applicant’s warmth and friendliness as well as leadership qualities and independence. “The latter two are stereotypical male attributes and behaviors,” said Thompson, “while the first two are communal attributes more often associated with women.”
Participants were also supplied pay ranges and asked to recommend a starting rate for the applicant if hired based upon the provided materials.
The results showed that smiley faces in the correspondence evoked feminine stereotypes such as warmth. “That could actually be an advantage in the way some employers view the applicant, especially if it is for a position that is typically associated with females,” said Thompson.
She noted that studies have shown that in face-to-face meetings women tend to smile more often than men, so “it is not unusual to see that carried over in e-mail correspondence.”
However, when applying for male gender-typed jobs, applicants using smileys are perceived to be less competent and weaker in the so-called male attributes and behaviors such as independence and leadership, which are believed to be necessary for success in these types of jobs.
When recommending a pay level, the participants assigned lower starting pay levels for smiley users.
One of her research goals was to use the study to help job applicants be aware of the benefits and risks of using smiley faces in their correspondence with prospective employers. 
“E-mails do not provide the opportunity for nuances in communication that face-to-face meetings do,” said Thompson.
The Internet has prompted dramatic changes in personnel recruitment and hiring and, although making it easier and quicker to apply for jobs, it has also opened up other ways (Facebook, MySpace, even YouTube) for employers to glean information about applicants.
“People, especially younger ones who are more accustomed to using social media to communicate, need to be aware of the impressions they are putting out there and know that the consequences can be costly,” said Thompson.
People need to be careful about their e-mail correspondence with employers. They need to be wary of using shorthand and Web acronyms. Take the time to type in complete sentences without the abbreviations.
“I certainly think there’s a time and place for the smiley,” said Thompson. “The best rule of thumb is to think about whether you want to portray an impression of warmth and friendliness. If so, then use the smiley. However, if you want to create the impression of someone who is powerful, competent, independent, and a potential leader, don’t use smiley faces in your correspondence.”
“Under certain circumstances, like applying for a job that is usually associated with males, using smileys could, quite literally, come at a reduced cost in rates of pay,” she said.