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To Hug or Not to Hug: The Evolving Rules of Embracement Engagement in the Office

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9-12-homespun-low-res.jpgBy Ruth Mantell

RISMEDIA, Sept. 12, 2007-(MarketWatch)-Julie Malveaux could use a good hug.

She grew to enjoy the fond embrace — and occasional cheek kiss — with which clients and co-workers greeted her while at her former job for a public-relations firm in Miami.

“It felt weird at first. Then you realize it’s just not that unusual,” she said. “It was very clear that it was just a greeting or a good-bye … just a friendly gesture.”

The 36-year-old, now working as a media-affairs manager in Alexandria, Va., said physical affection between colleagues created a familial feel. She added that the physical affection was more common between female co-workers.

“I do miss the touch stuff. I just think it makes for close teams,” Malveaux said.

Decades ago, hugging between co-workers was unusual if not verboten. Today, physical affection can flourish in certain industries — dot-com, marketing and fashion, for instance — even as companies have increasingly codified the rules of workplace touching.

Hug-mes and hug-me-nots

“I think hugging in the workplace depends a lot on the culture of that specific workplace,” said Patricia Mathews, founder of Workplace Solutions Consultants, a St. Louis-based consultancy. “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, has been training workers about illegal harassment in the workplace for 15 years. Along with more casual dressing in some offices, she has seen increased hugging due in part to the proliferation of relaxed work environments populated by younger employees, such as those at some marketing firms.

“Hugging in those kinds of workplaces has become less of an issue. I see a more causal interaction, these employees socialize more outside of work,” Mathews said.

She added that organizations in recent years have been doing a better job of bringing in employees that fit their culture — whether it’s pro- or antihug.

Hugging rules

Hugging isn’t illegal in the workplace, but it isn’t always welcome.

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 unwelcome.”

“It would have to be so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person in the same situation would feel offended,” she said.

Since the late 1990s, companies have been trying to lay down rules for what constitutes inappropriate behavior and what doesn’t. Companies that have such policies in place protect themselves from lawsuits that might stem from harassing behavior by their employees, Supreme Court decisions have found.

The emphasis on harassment policies, though, hasn’t kept displays of physical affection from becoming common practice in certain industries. Hugging is also common among employees who have been working together for years, regardless of the culture of the industry. After all, many workers spend more time at the office than with their families. Plus co-workers are likely to have common interests, so it’s only natural for friendships to form.

“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 that offer 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’s its usually best to stay professional and stay away from that.”

Tips on office etiquette

In terms of work-force business etiquette, most rules for hugging 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 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.”

Yet times have changed, and will continue to do so, Post said. For example, 50 or 60 years ago if a woman didn’t extend her hand to shake, men wouldn’t extend their own, 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 will be perfectly acceptable, 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 recommended putting your hand in front of you like a foil.

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 dominated by younger employees and dot-com offices.
“If you tried doing that at a conservative bank it would probably be frowned on. 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,” he said.

Ruth Mantell is a MarketWatch reporter based in Washington.

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