Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 32;   August 8, 2007: Unwelcome Workplace Hugs

Unwelcome Workplace Hugs


Some of us are uncomfortable about workplace hugs, and some want to be selective. Sometimes hugs are simply inappropriate. Here are some tips for dealing with unwelcome workplace hugs.
A hug about to happen

A hug about to happen. Note the cues indicating an impending hug: the steps forward, the arms open, and the smiles. In person, you would also notice motion. Although this is not a professional hug, the hug cues are the same, though in this case — the reunion of a soldier and his wife — perhaps a bit more noticeable. Photo by Staff Sgt. Phillip Butterfield, courtesy U.S. Air Force.

I like hugs — with certain people, that is. Some I hug, some I don't. Hugs are very different from handshakes, about which most of us are much less choosy. The most seriously unwelcome hug — the inappropriate groping hug — is a topic of its own, now covered by legal prohibitions in the U.S. and elsewhere. For those hugs, the best solution is the formal grievance: first with your company, but if necessary, with the courts.

For those situations not covered by law, what can we do? Here are some insights for dealing with the more "routine" unwelcome hugs.

Put out your hand a little early
Rejecting a hug after the other person has stepped forward, arms out, can be embarrassing for both of you. Witnesses almost inevitably wonder, "What's up with that?"
If you extend your hand for a handshake, before that forward step, you avoid the rejection gesture. If someone insists on hugging after you've extended your hand, most witnesses will understand that you are the aggrieved party.
Insisting on a hug can be risky
When you want to hug, but the other person extends a hand for a handshake, insisting on the hug can create an incident of note, and you might seem to have overstepped.
Instead, shake hands. If you have a talent for humor, and you've mastered the impish smile, you can try, "Gosh, I was hoping for a hug — but maybe someday…" Often, this will bring a smile to your partner's face, and the hug will follow. Try this only once, though — it isn't funny a second time. After that first time, the hug-or-handshake decision is up to your partner.
Selectivity can be awkward
Rejecting a hug after
the other person has
stepped forward, arms
out, can be embarrassing
for both of you
In a small group, when the hugs begin, it's OK to be selective, in two cases. It's generally acceptable not to hug someone you see very often, and it's acceptable not to hug someone you don't know well. If you select on some other basis, the people you don't hug could take minor offense.
One workable tactic: refrain from hugging anyone in the group.
The sideways hug might not be a way out
Some people feel that a way to avoid the standard professional hug is the "sideways hug," in which the two partners face almost the same direction with their partner-side arms around each other's backs.
This might look OK to observers, but unless your partner is also avoiding the standard professional hug, he or she could experience a feeling of "not getting the real thing." Except for photographs or video, avoid the sideways hug; it doesn't accomplish what you were hoping for.

You might have someone in your work life who expects to hug you and be hugged, despite your preference for a less demonstrative greeting. Before you file a grievance, ask yourself if you've clearly expressed your preference. If not, that's step one. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: What Measurements Work Well?  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

For more about workplace hugging, see "About Workplace Hugs," Point Lookout for August 1, 2007.

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