Hug or a handshake: Which does your workplace embrace?

Like people, some workplaces welcome huggers. Others prefer a smartly extended right hand. An Associated Press article posed the classic conundrum: “To hug or not to hug, at work.”

The answer—perhaps unsurprisingly—is: It depends. The article quoted a variety of experts, who raised any number of complicating issues.

Does workplace hugging promote team cohesion? Does the culture of the industry or profession matter? What about the age of the work force?

Patricia Mathews of Workplace Solutions Consultants told AP, “I think hugging in the workplace depends a lot on the culture of that specific workplace. It’s truly a gray area. Some people love to be hugged. For others it’s ‘please don’t touch me.’”

Mathews, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Employee Relations Panel, contends that industries and professions that attract younger workers embrace more embracing at work: “Hugging in those kinds of workplaces has become less of an issue. I see more casual interaction; these employees socialize more outside of work.”

Older employees in more conservative businesses, not so much.

Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute and great-grandson of etiquette maven Emily Post, urges a hands-off approach to work. “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.”

Of course, hugging also raises the specter of harassment, an issue that matters to the EEOC. “The only issue would be whether the nature of the touching or hugging is such that it threatened to become harassing,” said Dianna Johnston, EEOC assistant legal counsel. “To be considered unlawful, it would have to be unwelcome. It would have to be so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person in the same situation would feel offended.”

Learn more: ‘Preventing Sexual Harassment’

While most of the time a hug is just a hug, employers need to be aware that the threat of sexual harassment may lurk behind seemingly innocent gestures. To brush up on anti-harassment basics, download HR Specialist’s free white paper Preventing Sexual Harassment: A Business Guide.

It lists five steps to help HR prevent and deal with workplace sexual harassment, as well as a sample anti-harassment policy.