Hugs In The Workplace: Acceptable Or Personal-space Invasion?

national hugging dayBy Debra Auerbach

The hug. It's a simple gesture that can make a happy situation happier or help someone overcome with sadness feel a little better. Studies have shown that hugs can actually make a difference in one's health; research out of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found that a hug can lower blood pressure and reduce the harmful physical effects of stress.

Hugs are thought to be so beneficial, there's even a day dedicated to celebrating the gift of a hug. Jan. 21 has been deemed "National Hugging Day," and according to the organizer's website, the day was "created for family and friends to hug often and freely with one another."

Yet when it comes to hugging in the workplace, the act may become less of a kind gesture and more of a liability. According to a survey by staffing agency The Creative Group, seven in 10 executives interviewed said embracing co-workers in a business setting is inappropriate.

"The thing about hugging in the workplace is that if it makes anyone uncomfortable, there can be legal ramifications," says Donna Flagg, workplace communications expert and author of, "Surviving Dreaded Conversations." "And because of hostile work environment and sexual harassment suits, innocent hugging is always vulnerable to being construed as something else - that is, something not so innocent."

So is hugging a co-worker or showing any signs of physical affection ever acceptable? Or is it better to avoid any gesture that could be considered a personal-space invasion? While opinions may differ, here are some things to think about when going in for an office hug:

Consider where you work

To determine if hugs are tolerated in your workplace, first think about where you work. The type of company it is and the culture it promotes may give you some clues as to whether signs of affection would be encouraged. Is your company more by-the-book or is it laid back in its methods or practices? Does the company culture encourage working in teams and being open to others, or is it more of an independent, cut-throat, every-man-for-himself environment?

In addition, the type of field you work in can make a difference. If you work in a more corporate environment, affection may be frowned upon. But some fields - health care for instance - may be more open to hugging, and the act may even be part of the job.

"In my world, there are times when hugging is the most appropriate thing to do," says Dr. Diane Radford, a surgical oncologist specializing in breast cancer. "There are times when I interact with patients that giving or receiving a hug is part of the whole spectrum of communication ... A hug can be a reassuring way of indicating they will be OK, but I'm there if they need me. One has to be astute and know when a hug is the right thing to do. In my workplace, it often is the right thing to do."

Take cues from others

It's also important to keep in mind that everyone has different comfort levels when it comes to public displays of affection, especially with people who aren't family or close friends. While you may love giving hugs, they may make your cube mate uncomfortable.

"Recognizing that not everyone shares the same personal-boundary line is essential to maintaining a pleasant and professional workplace environment," says Roshini Rajkumar, national speaker and communication/image expert.

"Remember that personal touch is not about intention, but rather, how it is perceived by the person receiving the touch. If they are uncomfortable, then the touch is wrong. Be aware of co-workers' personal boundaries before entering into a 'physical relationship' with them, no matter how passive or limited the touch."

Respect cultural differences

Someone's comfort level for workplace affection may be influenced by their age, upbringing or cultural background. While some cultures embrace hugging, others show respect or thanks in other ways, so it's important to keep such differences in mind.

Also consider one's gender and role within the company. Hugging someone of another gender could more easily be misconstrued than hugging someone of the same sex. There may be sensitivities around hugging a boss or subordinate but not necessarily around hugging a peer.

"Keep in mind the recipient's gender and ethnicity," Rajkumar says. "Different cultures have different boundaries...Generations have different expectations as well. Today's younger generation is more touchy-feely, while the older generation [tends to be] more formal."

Watch how you hug

There are different ways you can hug someone, and they can mean different things. Hugging from the front or back may be awkward, but a casual side hug could appear less threatening and personal.

"A big smothering bear hug may not be appropriate, but the handshake and one arm around the shoulder hug - which tends to be more of a hit-and-run type of hug - could work fine," says Regina Barr, founder and CEO of Red Ladder Inc., a consulting, executive coaching and speaking company. "The latter hug might be more comfortable for folks in the workplace, because it's a hybrid hug."

If in doubt, handshake it out

"If you work in a friendly/casual environment, you may be able to substitute hugging for handshaking, but when in doubt, don't hug," Rajkumar suggests. "It's usually best to err on the side of caution when it comes to physical displays of affection. Consider a big smile and enthusiastically clasping your hands together while you express gratitude verbally as an alternative." Rajkumar also recommends high fives or shoulder claps as some other ways to communicate physically without overstepping.

While there's no right answer to whether or not hugging in the workplace is appropriate, there's still no argument that a good hug can make someone's day a little brighter. Just make sure it's warranted and welcomed.

Do you think hugs or other signs of affection are acceptable in the workplace? Or do you think they are inappropriate? Tell us in the comments section below.

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Getting all bent out of shape over coworkers hugging each other, is just plain nonsense.
In this day and age, there are times, when we all need the comfort of a friend or
someone who cares. I myself am a touchy/feely type of person too, but that's just
my personality. My parents brought me up to be caring and sociable with others. I'm
not some stone-faced business person. That's what's wrong with the corporate world.
Nobody's alowd to be themselves, Everyone's always expected to think, feel, and act
like the boss. Or, we're expected to show no emotions. Whether bosses or the overly
politically correct liberals like it or not, people are human, and noone is going to change who we are. Afterall, we're not machines. I guess next, they're going to design a company policy, that states that people are no longer alowd to say good morning, or compliment their female coworker about how nicely she's dressed.


February 25 2012 at 3:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I see sexual harassment suits everywhere after people start hugging at work in the US !

January 21 2012 at 4:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

From the perspective of employment laws in the USA, it's best not to hug in a work-related setting, unless you are good friends with one another. There are people who say they "are huggers" and hug everyone, but that means that the hugger doesn't think about how the others feel about being hugged.

I say, better be safe than sorry. If you don't want to risk a charge of sexual harassment, don't do it!

January 21 2012 at 4:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Of course, I always hugged 'em from behind so I could feel their knockers. It's good to be boss. jk, jk

January 21 2012 at 3:23 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Don't do it! Even if hugs appear to be welcome signs of reassurance or support, if you are the hugger you may find that it's been noted in your personnel file and used as evidence against you in any number of ways. This is especially true if you are a subordinate to someone you have hugged or touched in the workplace. However innocent they are to you, save your hugs for family and loved ones and don't do it in the workplace - ever !.

January 21 2012 at 3:01 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Stupid lib political correctness will get you put in jail for saying good morning before too long.

January 21 2012 at 2:37 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jvinylman502's comment

Do you have proof liberals are against hugs? Until you do, I will consider your post pure nonsense.

January 21 2012 at 3:33 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I currently work in construction at a chemical plant - I think hugging would be a great way to get my butt kicked! In a previous career I was a leader in foodservice operations at healthcare facilities and hugging was a way of life. I kind of miss the hugging.

January 21 2012 at 1:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

i hug people at work (usually hello\goodbye) but they aren't random people, they are friends. obviously personal boundaries should be respected. i have a few friends who aren't huggers, so i don't hug them.

Hakuna Matata

January 21 2012 at 12:55 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Hugging co-workers of the opposite sex should only occur if they have paid for the motel room.

January 21 2012 at 11:41 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

It's ok for women to hug men or women. Men should not hug women unless she has had a tragedy or triumph in her life. (And then, only maybe). All other hugs are at your own peril.

January 21 2012 at 11:31 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

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