Is hugging in the workplace considered appropriate?

When is it appropriate to hug a colleague or a client? Do you enthusiastically open your arms and move in for a hug, assuming it is alright? Do you wait awkwardly for a colleague or customer to initiate it? Some people are determined huggers and other definitely don’t want to be touched.

Personal interactions in the workplace have taken on a new focus based on recent workplace harassment allegations. First and foremost: Always treat your colleagues and clients with respect and in a way that you would want to be treated, or have your close friends and family treated.

The following are some tips from “Poised for Success” author Jacqueline Whitmore that can help you decide if or when such an action is appropriate.

Pay close attention to body language.
Another person’s body language will tell you whether he or she is willing to accept a hug or not. Pay attention to the person’s stance, body movement, and facial expression. Are the feet pointed toward you or away? Is the person leaning in, or distancing him or herself? Follow your gut feeling about what this person wants and, if there is any doubt, do the following.

Ask permission.
If you want to hug someone and you think it’s welcome, but you aren’t positive, just ask the person “May I give you a hug?” That question indicates both affection and respect for the other person’s feelings and will likely be appreciated.

The only down side to this is that some people may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable saying “no.” So if you’re getting a negative or uncertain vibe before asking, don’t even ask the question. If a person seems uncertain after you ask, distance yourself from the situation either by stepping away or moving on to another subject.

Consider the balance of power — always.
A boss hugging an employee is a very different matter from two business associates hugging at the conclusion of a meeting. Managers should be extremely cautious about hugging.  Because of your status in the office, you may be perceived as using your power to disrespect another person’s boundaries or personal space. A subordinate may feel obligated to reciprocate, even if they feel uncomfortable. For a manager, the safe bet is to not hug an employee under any circumstance.

Consider the occasion.
If you haven’t seen a colleague in a long time, or you’ve just gone through a powerful training or other experience together, or you’re at a celebration, then hugging might be appropriate. The same may apply if the person in question has just had a piece of very good, or very bad, news or is struggling to deal with a difficult situation. If you routinely see this person and nothing our-of-the-ordinary has occurred, then a hug probably isn’t warranted.

Keep it short.
A hug can go from natural to awkward if you keep it going for too long. So make your hugs brief. A duration of no more than three seconds is acceptable.

Most importantly: Err on the side of not hugging.
If you’re not sure whether a hug would be welcome and you don’t think it’s a good idea to ask, then don’t hug. You’ll almost never offend someone with a handshake.

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Lisandra Garrow, Partnership Manager