Hugging Rules

Hugging isn’t illegal in the workplace. –  It’s also not always welcomed.

When it comes to physical behavior in the office that could lead to court action, there’s no bright line between what’s accepted and prohibited, noted Dianna Johnston, assistant legal counsel with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“The only issue would be whether the nature of the touching or hugging is such that it threatened to become harassing,” Johnston said. “To be considered unlawful, it would have to be unwelcomed. It would have to be so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person in the same situation would feel offended.”

Since the late 1990s, companies have been trying to establish what constitutes inappropriate behavior and what doesn’t. Supreme Court decisions have found that companies with clearly defined policies better safeguard themselves against harassment lawsuits from employees. Even so, emphasis on harassment policies hasn’t eliminated displays of physical affection, which are commonplace in some industries. Hugging is also common among some employees who have worked together for years, regardless of their industry’s culture. After all, many people spend more time with co-workers than their family members. Also, co-workers are likely to have common interests, so it’s only natural for friendships to develop.

“Sometimes people get comfortable with each other, and over time they become more comfortable and that may include a big hug,” said T. Ray Bennett, vice president of human resources with American Bureau of Shipping.

ABS, which does business all over the world, has developed company Intranet sites offering information about local customs, including the appropriate way to greet folks when abroad.

Yet ABS doesn’t encourage hugging or other intimate touches, said Bennett, another member of SHRM’s employee-relations panel.

“Hugging is typically not necessary to get the job done, so it’s not something we feel is necessary,” he said. “We suggest that it’s usually best to stay professional and stay away from that.”

Tips on office etiquette

In terms of workforce business etiquette, most rules for hugging today are similar to what they were 20 years ago, said Peter Post, a director of the Emily Post Institute.

“Our goal in etiquette is to be considerate of other people’s feelings, and to do things to build relationships,” said Post, great-grandson of Emily Post, who in 1922 wrote what’s widely considered to be the definitive U.S. book on etiquette. “If by making a choice to hug a person, making them feel uncomfortable, I’m hurting that person, that’s a mistake.”

Times have changed and will continue to do so, Post said. For example, 50 or 60 years ago when women didn’t want to extend their hands for shaking, men wouldn’t extend theirs, he noted.

“In today’s world a man can extend his hand first. I think it’s occurred because rather than having a gender-differentiated workplace, we have more of a neutral workplace. That’s been a function of women really entering the work force, especially in latter half of 20th century,” Post said.

A good rule of thumb is that huggers should consider not hugging a woman if they also wouldn’t hug a man, Post said. Shaking hands would be perfectly acceptable in any circumstance, he said.

“Any kind of intimate touching is a mistake,” Post said. “I would avoid even reaching out to touch somebody’s shoulder as you’re walking by them. We really recommend that people refrain from stepping in and giving a hug to a co-worker, a client.”

He noted that there are circumstances in which hugging could be appropriate — during personal moments, such as news of pregnancy or a personal tragedy.

For reluctant huggees — those trying to avoid an embrace — Post recommends putting your hand in front of you to foil the attempt.

He added that hugging between women is probably more common, but that younger men seem more willing to hug friends or engage in a kind of half-hug with an arm draped around a shoulder. Post has noticed increased hugging in workplaces that are dominated by younger employees and in dot-com offices.

“If you tried doing that at a conservative bank it would probably be frowned upon,” he said. “I’m not sure that co-workers will start greeting each other with hugs and kisses every day because they’re friends. Knowing the culture of the workplace is important.

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