Career Q&A: Handling hugging in the office

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In my workplace, it is very common for co-workers to hug as part of a greeting. I must admit that while I like the people I work with, I feel very uncomfortable with this invasion of my personal space...but I also want to fit in. What should I do?

In general, there are two contradictory and mutually exclusive themes converging in today's work world. The first is the very real threat of legal or other action being taken by individuals due to harassment and the second is the general evolution of the typical workplace as a much more informal, family-oriented environment.

Like many medical marvels, hugs are great things - scientifically proven to improve our health. But like all medicine, if not taken as directed, there can be unwanted consequences.

Reviewing cultural norms

Quite naturally, we all have different individual norms concerning our personal boundaries, since we all come from different upbringings, gender, countries, religions, and ethnicities. Also, each organization can have its own cultural norms, depending on a variety of factors. Every organization is unique in this way.

Policy check

Does your organization have a policy manual? If so, review it to see whether there is an existing guideline on appropriate levels of physical contact. Factors such as the organizational level, and in particular, the gender of each of the huggers, has important implications. Generally speaking, it is much less appropriate for a boss to hug a subordinate and for members of different genders to hug.

Of course it is usually best to err on the side of conservatism and not hug other workers, versus showering everyone in sight with affection.

Get support and talk it out

Let your manager know that while you enjoy interacting with your co-workers, you are not as comfortable with physical contact, such as hugging. Hopefully, you will have a sympathetic manager who can discreetly let the word out for you and everyone will respect your wishes. Make sure to reinforce this moving forward by employing some "non hug" strategies as defined below.

How to master the "non hug"

If you do find yourself in a situation with a group of huggers, try to create your own method of "hugging" that you are more comfortable with. For example, get known as the "fist pump" person, or shake hands with a quick side "body bump", or half hug. Remember to only use a technique that you feel comfortable with.

Good luck!

Mitchell Stephenson M.A., CPCC, is a senior partner and a certified professional career counsellor at Catalyst Careers, a career transition, counselling, and outplacement firm. Mitch has been involved in human resources, career counselling and coaching in the health and legal sectors for many years. To contact him, visit:

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