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Is hugging completely off-limits in the workplace?

Jane Crosby

Given the recent headlines about Phillip Green and the alleged victims of sexual harassment, physical contact in the workplace is a very high-profile topic among bosses, workers, and HR departments. Contributor Jane Crosby, Partner – Hart Brown. 

What are the boundaries of appropriate behaviour when it comes to physical contact in the workplace? and advices how to navigate this minefield.

The law 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.

So how do you prevent an embarrassing situation arising, and a possible resulting legal action?

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 significant percentage of our non-verbal communication.

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.

What should you do therefore before you decide to hug someone:

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.

2.What should Managers do?
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 in terms of the allegations made against them.  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.

3.Do you ask permission to hug?
If you really want to hug someone  then you could ask permission because 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.

4.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

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