What’s ‘Inappropriate’ Touching at Work?

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"?