What’s ‘Inappropriate’ Touching at Work? — Business Management Daily: Free Reports on Human Resources, Employment Law, Office Management, Office Communication, Office Technology and Small Business Tax Business Management Daily
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What’s ‘Inappropriate’ Touching at Work?

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in Your Office Coach

Question: What kind of touching is considered “inappropriate” at work? I don’t mean sexual contact, but simply an occasional pat on the arm or a hand on someone’s back. One of our managers, who is naturally gregarious, received a formal complaint about this kind of touching. The complaining person never said before that she was offended, so how was he to know? My own management style has been described as warm and “touchy-feely.” Should I start being more careful? -- Concerned

Marie's answer: Generally speaking, touching people at work is a bad idea. Unless physical contact is part of the job—as with doctors, hair stylists or massage therapists—it’s best to keep your hands to yourself. Here’s why:

  • Without psychic powers, you can’t predict how someone will react to a friendly pat. Outgoing people often view casual touches as warm and caring. But more reserved folks may regard any physical contact as intrusive and an invasion of their personal space.
  • Managers must be especially vigilant about potentially offensive behavior.  Because you hold a position of power, employees may feel obligated to quietly endure actions which they find distasteful. 
  • If your good-natured hugs and touches are misinterpreted as sexual overtures, you might find yourself slapped with an unexpected harassment charge. Both you and your company could then be held legally liable for your actions. (For a legal definition of sexual harassment, see the EEOC’s web site.)
  • Going forward, try to maintain your warm and personable style, but drop any behaviors that are literally “touchy-feely.” 

For a look at different management styles, see Do You Understand Your Boss's "Operating System"?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca December 2, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Do I think that my female supervisor putting her hand on my waist as she reaches around me for something at my cash register constitutes harassment? No. But it still makes me uncomfortable. I’m shy and I don’t want to rock the boat, so I’ll never say anything about it.


Mohan M Prasad November 18, 2009 at 12:27 am

In my books,its difficult to define and set the boundary lines on this sensitive issue .

What differentiates and distinguishes in a touch situation is the spontaneity .

Besides it’s highly a subjective matter and hence cannot be governed by universal rules.

However anyone who insists on the tough even after being told that it’s not welcome, renders him/herself to a cognizable act of questionable behaviour .

And finally, while we judge ourselves by our intent , the world judges us by our behaviour and conduct and if there is a conflict on these two at work place , our behaviours should prevail over the intent .

Never mind however rich the intent may be .

These are the golden rules of social etiquette.

” words can touch where hands cannot reach” is the old maxim.

All the best

Mohan M Prasad


Hands off mommy July 8, 2009 at 11:29 am

This should include pregnant tummies as well. From the time I announced my pregnancy, our office manager wouldn’t stop touching my tummy. She even bent over and called in to the baby. How annoying and over the line.


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