American Express’ VP Global Employment Counsel Global Business Travel, Kristen Hotchkiss shares her thoughts.
As I write this, the US is deep into the predicted second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and over 48 states are seeing an increase in both cases and hospitalizations. Many of us have not spent time with our friends or families in months, let alone hug any of them, and we are all suffering from COVID-19 fatigue.
With fewer in-person interactions, COVID-19 has taken a toll on the mental and emotional state of employees everywhere. It’s well-established that as social beings, we thrive on interaction with our community, our friends and our colleagues. As a gesture of friendship and good-will, it is culturally acceptable to hug one another in the appropriate setting. In fact, hugging is good for the soul, and even good for our health. We hug when we’re happy, we hug when we’re sad, and we hug both to console and to rejoice. Hugging reduces stress and has even been found to reduce blood pressure. Some experts say we should hug several times a day (I wonder what it takes to be considered an expert on hugging?). Two of my favorite movie scenes are the beginning and end of “Love Actually” – just to see everyone connect brings joy.
But can we hug our work colleagues?
When I was young, my father taught me how to greet his business colleagues: Extend my hand, look the other person in the eye and state, my name is Kirsten and I am pleased to meet you. As many of his colleagues were Latino, he also taught me to say, “Hola, me llamo Kirsten, mucho gusto.”
No one ever hugged.
Scroll forward many years to when I was a young attorney at a law firm defending employers in sexual harassment cases. My mentor reinforced the same business etiquette that my father had taught me. As employment lawyers, we abhorred hugging. It could only lead to litigation. And I saw it many times: the $100,000 kiss, the inappropriate touching, and the stroking which was almost always associated with other unwelcome behavior. And this was long before the #Metoo and #timesup movements.
So, of course we as employment lawyers did not advise anyone that it was acceptable to hug.
But then, about 10 years into my career, after I went in-house, I reconnected with an outside attorney with whom I had worked on a case in Texas. When we met up for the first time, he gave me a big Texas style hug. It wasn’t creepy – it was collegial. And then I became conflicted. Can colleagues hug? Is hugging between colleagues truly a bad thing?
I started paying more attention to hugging between colleagues, and, I remembered that even my mentor would occasionally put his arm across someone’s shoulder in a fatherly sort of way – wasn’t that a form of hugging?
Maybe colleagues can hug in an appropriate way?
As in-house counsel, I delivered hundreds of Sexual Harassment prevention presentations for supervisors. Inevitably, the question arose: can we ever touch the other person? After giving the standard lawyerly response of “it depends” and reinforcing the concept of “welcomeness,” my response emphasized that the answer depended on each individual’s sense of personal space, and that there is no “one size fits all” answer. Just as much as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, “welcomeness” is determined by the recipient. And, just as importantly, the recipient may welcome a touch from one person but not welcome it from another – so you cannot base your behavior on what you may witness between two other people.
Even across the US, you can tell that there are different levels of tolerance for touching – It has been my observation that those in the East Coast have the largest circle of non-invadable space, while Mid-West and Western people tend to be much more welcoming (hence the Texas hug). So, maybe in Denver and Seattle you will find more people open to being touched.
The supervisors would also ask, is there a part of the body that is safe to touch? The answer is still the same: It depends. But, but even if the recipient does not object to, for example, a hand on a shoulder or elbow, the toucher must never linger or expand the touch to a stroke, a grope or a massage.
And, lest there be any doubt, the courtrooms are full of cases brought against touchers who didn’t know the difference between a warm embrace and an inappropriate grope. The former occasionally may be welcome, while the latter will never be.
- What if a colleague suffers bad news and you want to console him or her?
- What if they want to celebrate?
- What if you’ve worked together for years and have developed a camaraderie?
- What if you’re coming out of a long period of isolation and you are seeing your colleagues for the first time in months, if not a year?
Maybe it is acceptable to hug under certain circumstances. With the assumption that someday, when the pandemic is over, we are able to connect again with our friends and colleagues and warmly greet one another, here are some suggestions to guide your interactions:
- Make sure you know that a hug is welcome. We call this developing your social antennae. If someone approaches you with their arms open – that is a pretty good signal. If there are any indications at all that the hug is not welcome, don’t do it.
- Ask first. If you read this article and think that it provides a license to hug anyone anywhere without permission, then clearly you don’t get it.
- Hugs must be kept at shoulder level.
- Do not press closely – It is not an eighth-grade dance.
- Do not whisper in someone’s ear or blow on their neck
- Don’t ever hug anyone from behind – An ambush is never welcome.
- Hugs must be infrequent – not your standard form of greeting.
- Be an equal opportunity hugger – Don’t reserve hugs only for members of the opposite sex.
- Don’t ever comment on the other person’s body – that is not the purpose of the hug
- Don’t hold on too long – keep it simple. If you come on like Pepe LePew, or you can tell that someone is squirming to get away from you, let go immediately and don’t hug that person again – apologize for your mistake.
Remember, even if you follow these rules to a tee, there are those that regard any form of touching another person in the workplace as unacceptable and unwelcome under any circumstance. What you may have intended as a warm embrace can easily be portrayed as an act of aggression or harassment, and you may find yourself in the HR office defending your behavior, or worse, at the receiving end of a harassment lawsuit.
But, with all that said, it is my hope that when workers and colleagues can once again reunite, we can be joyous in our celebration of togetherness, and hugging will be acceptable.
I know, these are heretical thoughts coming from an employment attorney, but, at the end of the day, we are all still human, and, truth be told, I miss my colleagues.