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Editorial Team
14 Aug 2019



Keeping your Distance: When Hugs become Bugs

workplace culture

From awkward hugs that you cannot get out of to mistimed kisses that miss their mark, physical greetings at the workplace are a hard-to-navigate minefield. Is it best to just ban them?

The workplace of today is no longer the stuck-up, nose-in-the-air place of yore. Office wear is now casual, work conversations have given way to talk about anything under the sun, and the boss comes over for chats not unlike those with colleagues. And you may have reserved a certain level of physical contact and familiarity only for family and friends in the past, but now it is common to show the same for your colleagues.

But how casual is too casual? And when does friendly become uncomfortable? Now that’s a million-dollar question if there ever was one.

That’s a question that the employees of Ted Baker, a British luxury clothing retail chain, had to deal within 2018. They had, in fact, been dealing with it allegedly for a while, but matters came to a head when a petition was filed against the founder and CEO, Ray Kelvin, for his inappropriate comments and behavior against the female employees of the firm.

The allegations against Kelvin include forced hugging, massaging the shoulders, kissing their ears, and even asking some to sit on his lap. On one occasion, he is said to have taken his shirt off in the presence of a female employee, before proceeding to discuss his sex life. And with the petition having fast racked up a huge number of signatures (more than 2,500 as per CBS News), the allegations do seem to carry weight. Ted Baker, in fact, announced on December 7, 2018, that Kelvin was taking a voluntary leave of absence, and followed it up with a March 4, 2019 announcement of his resignation as CEO of the company.

The purpose, here, though, is not to discuss threadbare the situation at Ted Baker, but, instead, to talk about the larger issue. Companies often propagate a culture – inadvertently or otherwise – where certain behaviors are condoned. In this case, former employees alleged that the hug was known to be a “norm” of sorts, which sounded fine till it actually happened, with a rather long embrace – preceded by an announcement of the same – becoming incredibly uncomfortable. And picture what might be going through the mind of a new employee, or even one who has been there for a while, but is, of course, junior to the “big guy” (figuratively speaking, of course). Such an employee tends to not oppose or fight back, unsure of the battles that are worthy of being fought.

Should workplace hugs be banned, then? A survey by TotalJobs, administered in 2019 on 2,000 people, suggests that a quarter of people avoid meeting certain colleagues because of the kind of greeting that was known to ensue, and three-quarters of people do want a full ban on physical contact at the workplace. A third said they faced awkward greetings from colleagues when trying to say Hello “safely”, a quarter say they were caught in an unwelcome hug, and 13% say they were “accidentally” kissed on the mouth (oh sure!). Let us look at some of the reasons that support a code of conduct in this matter:

  • People do not decline a hug out of fear of appearing cold or unfriendly to those they work with.
  • Those who love hugging, assume everyone else feels the same way.
  • Often, hugs are “pushed through” with the belief that a warm embrace melts away the crankiest of souls.
  • The response from those in positions of authority, to an allegation of an uncomfortable incident, often is: “But that is how (s)he is!” or “(S)He is like that with everyone.”

Do you still feel a code of conduct is not needed? Hopefully, no! The reality is that there is no universal code of conduct or any sort of code around the physicality of greetings and/or interactions at the workplace. Till such a system comes into place, what do you do when you face a hugger? Keep a cool head and:

  • Quickly stick out your hand, making it clear this will be a handshake situation.
  • Pair the handshake offer with a pleasant greeting, lest you fear it being perceived as cold or standoffish.
  • On rare occasions (because you cannot really reuse this one!), say you have a cold and would not want the other person to get sick.
  • It is ok to simply say “I am not really a hugger”, politely and frankly. Personal spaces are personal because they are not shared, and people need to respect boundaries.

Clearly, a code of conduct is a good idea, given the sensitivity of the situation and the potential of unclear guidelines to be misused or misinterpreted. Erring on the side of caution here possibly makes more sense than any other options or suggestions. Or maybe, keep it simple – Don’t hug (or kiss, or more) colleagues… end of story!

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