Elisha Gray has the rare ability to navigate people management with equal parts tact, pragmatism, and personal care. Following her tenure as Director of People and Culture at Street Contxt, Elisha has taken on the role of senior consultant at the modern HR consultancy, Bright + Early.
Here, she brings her wisdom to our HR advice column, Good Question, which helps business leaders navigate the complex world of people management. Have a question about your workplace? Submit it here.
I'm not what you'd call a 'hugger.' As a business owner, I’ve always maintained a personal handshake-only policy for my own comfort and because I think it is a professional and respectful greeting regardless of who I’m talking to. At my workplace, however, my colleagues seem to hug a lot. Some even greet each other with a double-kiss. I feel incredibly uncomfortable when it comes to reciprocating. I’m also worried about misunderstandings between my employees and potential problems down the road.
What are the rules around hugging at work? Can I impose a company-wide 'handshake only' rule just to be safe?
Congratulations to you, my friend! By the sound of it, you’ve got a group of people who are genuinely excited to see and celebrate each other at work. The people who were once strangers now exchange gestures to show affection, excitement, and joy. This is probably one of the things you only dreamt of achieving when you first launched your business.
Just because hugging has taken hold of your office, however, doesn’t mean it should go unchecked. Even seemingly well-meaning embraces at work can quickly lead to confusion, gossip, and distress. They can also open the door to repeated unwanted behaviour and legal liability.
The bigger picture
This conversation is perhaps more relevant today than ever, with our news feeds brimming with stories of inappropriate behaviour and the lasting damage it can have on individuals in the workplace. Chances are, others are feeling the same discomfort and confusion around hugs as you are. Your instinct to explore this issue and seek out guidelines is therefore 100% correct.
To start: Your choice to stick to handshakes is on-point, in my view. Behaviour matters, and as a leader, what you model will permeate the culture.
However, before you establish a strict ‘no hugging policy’, I would urge you to examine your company culture to see if there are more holistic actions you can take, such as education, training, and communication.
Behaviour matters, and as a leader, what you model will permeate the culture.
I’ve had my own experience with unwanted workplace hugging - albeit from the other side.
It was recently brought to my attention that a co-worker experienced discomfort when I greeted her with a hug on the first day back from a holiday break. I was caught really off-guard when I found out, and still feel terrible to this day. But, I learned a lasting lesson about assumptions, habitual behaviour, and consent.
In this case, I could only reflect after the damage had been done. So let’s get clear about this. Like, crystal.
When my co-worker extended her arms to reciprocate, I assumed it meant that it was ok to continue. I’d just spent the holidays with family and close friends and out of habit, found myself naturally extending the same greeting to my work colleagues. She didn’t say no, so I took that to mean yes. I had no idea my interaction was unwanted or that it made her uncomfortable. I’d never have known at all had she not found a safe outlet in another employee (and thankfully that existed). I don’t know if it also made others in the room uncomfortable or if it inadvertently created an unsafe environment for some people.
In short, there was no verbal or physical sign of resistance, and no immediate sense that I’d done anything wrong. Was it still wrong of me to go in for the hug? Yes. There are many things I could have done differently. First and foremost: ask.
There are many things I could have done differently. First and foremost: ask.
From the hugger’s side, for example, there’s nothing wrong with a quick “I’m so happy to see you! Can we hug?”
Or, as a non-hugger, you can take the opportunity to educate and lead by example. “I’m not much of a hugger, so I’ll spare you that,” followed by raising your hand for a high-five or handshake, makes your position clear and spares any awkwardness.
Questions for creating a safe place to work
Organizations and leaders of organizations are responsible for creating safe places to work. That that includes defining appropriate behaviour around workplace intimacy before anyone gets hurt.
While examining your workplace dynamic, ask yourself these questions:
Have I educated my team about workplace violence and harassment including sexual harassment, professional conduct, respectful workplace practices, and safe reporting? Can training in these areas help my employees make better decisions around touching in the office and keep unwanted behaviour at bay?
Can we analyze our company culture regularly as a group (perhaps at monthly town halls or quarterly offsites) and assess for areas of improvement?
In what ways can I promote and encourage non-physical forms of excitement, gratitude, and celebration? How can we, as a team, create new norms and habits in these areas?
Do we have a recognition program that highlights good work (like hitting goals) and life events (like starting a family)?
Am I proud of the company culture we have today?
Do people believe they can share their opinion safely? Can they give direct feedback to me? To each other? Do I have an employee feedback mechanism in place to understand if my employees are falling out of love or becoming disengaged, and why?
These questions should help you to determine the best course of action. Banning hugs may help, but educating your employees about how to ask for consent and recognize unwanted behaviour will go much further.
Additionally, hugs aren’t always bad. Hugging between coworkers can denote belonging and acceptance. Hugs can reduce stress and strengthen interpersonal relationships, so banning them could send the wrong signal to your team.
Before you establish a strict ‘no hugging policy’, examine your company culture to see if there are more holistic actions you can take.
To hug or not to hug?
The reality is, it’s complicated. Human relationships are nuanced and tend to change and shift over time. Plus, every person, culture, and workplace is different - which is why the questions above are so important to think about.
My advice is to educate, train, and analyze how your team operates day-to-day, both independently and as a group. Have conversations about the tough stuff: hugging, consent, communication. If you're not sure where to start, seek out coaching or facilitation support to get you there.
My bet is that you’ve hired smart, compassionate adults. Subject matter knowledge will set them up to make informed choices about how they conduct themselves in the workplace without you having to resort to archaic no-hug policies.
If you are not a hugger, don't be ashamed to let others know. Preemptively offer a handshake or high five.
Always ask before hugging, even if it's someone you've worked with for a while.
Carefully read body language. If you notice any signs of discomfort, promptly apologize.
If you are a manager or executive, be wary of hugging your direct reports. There are times when this is okay, but because of the power dynamic between bosses and the people they manage, it can be far more uncomfortable for the subordinate to say no.
Be mindful of cultural differences in greetings. How we welcome one another can be a wonderful opportunity to learn and bond.
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