4 golden rules for handling physical contact in the workplace

Understanding when physical contact in the workplace is acceptable requires empathy

In a time when people are starting to be more wary of inappropriate physicality, it is important to learn how to handle physical contact in the workplace. 

With all the exposure about inappropriate behaviour in organisations, many people are now expressing confusion about physical contact in the workplace. Are we, in our desire to be politically correct, stifling a basic human instinct for touch?  Some say we are. There are generally clear understandings about what is acceptable and what is not in most workplaces, although it does vary from culture to culture. Most people know where the boundaries lie -because we’re not talking about sleazy behaviour here. Some cultures and people are more “touchy feely” than others. So it can vary according to the type and length of the relationship and also in multi-cultural situations where physical contact in the workplace is simply not appropriate.

It is really important to be informed and read the signals. If someone is distressed or joyful it may seem automatic to one person to offer physical comfort or celebration with a hug for the recipient. However, for another, that could be construed as intrusive. Alternatively someone expecting a hug may find someone who doesn’t to be removed, insensitive and cold. We saw that with Theresa May’s visit to the Grenfell disaster site.

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Career Coach, Dorothy Dalton suggests that:

“Emotional intelligence” is about the understanding and correct interpretation of the underlying signals. It is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. This includes aligning your own emotions and responses with the expectations of the people  around you and responding appropriately. We have seen many situations where individuals get this wrong and fail to engage appropriately for the situation. This can be on both ends of the spectrum so that people can seem either cold and disengaged, or intrusive and inappropriate. It is a key career skill”

4 golden rules about physical contact in the workplace


1. Evaluate the situation

If the situation is exceptional – good or bad, hugging may be appropriate. This will depend on your relationship with the individual. For routine circumstances hand shaking maybe the best course of action.

2. Assess the power differentials

Given the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal where much discussion has been around the balance of power, be mindful of how that touch would be received. A boss hugging a report can be misconstrued as being disrespectful of boundaries and an abuse of power. If  there is a long-standing relationship then it could be received differently. Barak Obama routinely hugged people and no one read anything untoward into that gesture other than human compassion. Michelle Obama is also a big hugger. One person’s bonding moment might be awkward and uncomfortable for another.

3. Ask permission

When in doubt ask permission, but also be mindful of the power balance. Some people do not feel comfortable with any contact regardless of how well-intentioned it is. Someone may simply not want the boss moving in for a hug.

4.  Observe body language

If a person’s body language is relaxed and leaning in it could be appropriate to hug, but if they are leaning backwards, with arms folded or any other signs that they are mindful of their personal space and keeping their distance, then don’t hug.

Overall  – err on the side of caution and definitely don’t do anything that could be misinterpreted.

Dorothy continued:

“In Belgium where I am based, it is very common for colleagues to kiss each other on the cheek on arrival at the office. For some cultures this would be highly inappropriate and has thrown visitors from other countries. I have had US visitors completely taken aback!”

We all now have to be culturally and socially sensitive and aware when contemplating physical contact in the workplace.

Make sure you are leading by example and use our Mentor Programme to help support you.

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