When does a hug become unacceptable behaviour?

Physical contact in the workplace is a very high-profile topic among bosses, workers, and HR departments at the moment. On the back of two very public controversies, where men in positions of power got a little bit too ‘touchy-feely’ with their staff, the current default position is one that appears to say that touching, in any form, is off-limits. So do you go for that handshake when meeting a new business associate (especially if they’re of the opposite sex) or do you stand well back? What are the boundaries when it comes to physical contact in the workplace?

For both men and women, the boundaries of appropriate behaviour have become a little blurred. That may be a controversial thing to say, and obviously, we’re leaving completely inappropriate behaviour such as groping, unwanted dominant physical contact, or even sexual assault well and truly out of the argument here. It’s quite clear – that kind of behaviour is never okay, no matter how powerful the perpetrator likes to think they are.

What we’re talking about here is the general, everyday kind of physical contact, for example, that handshake we mentioned earlier, or a hug of condolence/support. It’s these that have become a minefield of doubt for workers and are leaving both men and women confused as to what’s appropriate, and what isn’t.

Emotional intelligence – to hug, or not to hug, that is the question…

Emotional intelligence is the ability to read and understand the underlying signals, body language and interpretation of intent that makes up a hefty percentage of our non-verbal communication.

It’s also a key career skill that you need to work on and develop to become a true ‘team player’. It’s about recognising the emotions and motivations of others and aligning yourself with them so you’re all working towards a common goal. It’s also about recognising when you need to micro-manage your own responses so as not to overstep the boundaries set by another individual.

Put simply, one person’s bonding hug, given in all innocence and with absolutely no sexual intent whatsoever, may make another person feel deeply uncomfortable. So to help you make the right decision, here’s a quick four-step guide to hugging:

  1. Evaluate the situation and your relationship with the other person

A promotion, a sales target that’s been achieved, or a person who is feeling upset and emotional may generate a ‘hug response’ in you. However, how well do you know this person? Are you real friends, or just work colleagues? A simple handshake may be more appropriate, or verbal support without any form of physical contact may be all that’s required to help the person feel better.

  1. Assess the balance of power

If you’re in a managerial position then hugging workers can be seen as a misuse of position and an overly dominant act, as both Ted Baker boss Ray Kelvin and Philip Green found to their cost recently. There are those who manage to hug without any form of menace (such as Barak Obama, who was a big hugger), but there has to be a real sense of trust in the person to allow the boundaries between boss and worker to be overstepped in such a personal way.

  1. Permission to hug?

If you really want to hand out a hug, then ask permission. Some people simply do not like physical contact, even if it’s well intentioned. You’ll also find that in certain cultures physical contact is not as freely given or accepted as it is in other societies. So you’ll also need to consider cultural boundaries as well as the individual’s response. That polite, ‘I’d rather you didn’t’ isn’t an insult, it’s the preference of the individual, and those boundaries need to be respected. If, however, they reciprocate then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t give a brief hug.

  1. Check their body language

We use body language to convey our emotions and feelings far more than verbal communication, so it’s well worth learning a few signals, such as body position, posture, and whether the body language is open and receptive or closed and defensive. Again, you’ll also have to bear in mind those cultural indicators – for example, in some countries a greeting is a kiss on each cheek, which would be overstepping a cultural boundary if your recipient is from a culture that regards this as inappropriate. If the person is leaning back or has their arms crossed, then they probably don’t want that hug you’re offering.

The bottom line is to err on the side of caution and just stop for a second to assess the situation before you go in for that ‘well done!’ hug. It may not be either appropriate or welcomed.

If you feel uncomfortable about being approached in this way then don’t be afraid to say, “Thanks, but I’m not really a hugger,” and clarify the situation to avoid any misunderstanding.

Hugging and the law

As the two most recent high-profile cases involving men in positions of power have demonstrated, unsolicited physical contact in the workplace (or in any other environment) is not only unwelcome, it could also land the perpetrator in hot water. The idea of having a ‘hugging principle’ in the workplace is abhorrent to most people and is really only done as a power/dominance act to make workers feel subservient, while trying to pass it off as an act of approval. The law, however, sees things very differently, and regards unwanted physical contact as a violation of someone’s rights, especially if they’re made to feel that objecting to it could result in them losing their job. Workers are well within their rights to say ‘no’ to anyone making unsolicited physical contact, without fearing that their position or job could be put in jeopardy if they object.

That means, quite simply, that if a boss or someone in a position of power forces you into a bear-hug that makes you feel uncomfortable or even violated, then you have every right to talk to a legal representative, your HR department, or your union representative.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.