To hug or not to hug: 9 rules for workplace and business hugging

To hug or not to hug at work. That is a question for many.

Do you hug people at work? And if so, do you hug the men or just the women? How about if you are a man? Do you hug everyone or no one? Because if you’re only giving hugs to women, you might want to reconsider this behaviour, lest it makes you look clueless at best, sexist at worst.

Why do women get hugs and men get handshakes?

A friend, who is an advertising executive that I’ll call Barb, asked me yesterday what I thought of this, as it’s something she encounters often. She said, “The standard greeting at ad agencies is a hug for women. Only women get hugs; men get handshakes. So, when I’m working with a male partner, and someone comes in, they’re like ‘good to see you guys!’ then open their arms for a hug from me, then turn, and shake the guy’s hand.”

These even happen when she tries to give a handshake instead. She went on to say, “I went to shake a guy’s hand today and he said ‘that’s weird – I’m a hugger.’ Then he went and shook my male partner’s hand.” She added, “I can’t decide if it’s homophobic or sexist.”

Me neither. But we did agree that we both view this behaviour as weird and unprofessional.

Hugging is common but could be viewed as sexual harassment

To be fair, the vast majority of men who do this probably do it without thinking, and with no nefarious intent. But the reality is that it can make people uncomfortable, and this is not what you’re going for in a business setting.

Hugging as a standard greeting has become common in many workplaces. A survey conducted in 2016 found that more than half of advertising and marketing executives said hugging coworkers is at least somewhat common in their industries in the United States, up from 30% in 2011. Clients were far less likely to get hugs, with more than three-quarters of respondents saying they rarely, if ever, greet clients with a hug.

As Barb also works in advertising, we can see that hugging is all the rage there. Its prevalence probably varies across industries, however, and I’m assuming it’s less common in, say, law and finance, and more common in so-called “creative” sectors.

Regardless of your industry, you might want to carefully consider your hugging practices.

Another study found that a quarter of fast-food employees felt that they had been hugged inappropriately on the job. And we also know that unwanted hugging can lead to sexual harassment suits.

9 rules for business and workplace hugging

To hug or not to hug? Start by following these 9 rules for hugging in business and the workplace.

Don’t be a gender-biased hugger. Hugging should be equal opportunity across genders. Hug everyone of all genders, or hug no one of any gender. Barb said, “What it says to me when they only hug me is ‘I view you, man, as an equal in business, and I view you, woman, as an object of affection.’”

Be aware of a power imbalance. It’s not usually appropriate to hug your subordinates. They might feel like they have no choice but to hug you. The same goes if you are the client and the other person is trying to close a deal. They might view it as a power play, which could work against you down the road.

Ask permission. “Can I give you a hug?” is a simple enough question to ask. Though, really, people might not feel like they can say no.

If someone offers their hand, don’t ask for a hug instead. Shake their hand. They don’t want to hug you.

Keep it brief. A business or work hug should be short. No clasping the person to you, rubbing them on the back, and letting out a sigh. Get in there, get your hug, and get out.

When in doubt, skip the hug. If you’re not entirely sure, go for a handshake. It’s usually the safer choice.

Don’t feel that you have to hug anyone. If you don’t want to hug anyone, don’t. Tell them you have a cold if you have to, and offer your hand.

Don’t make anyone feel like they have to hug you. In case this isn’t already clear. Nobody has to hug you. Back off.

Just use good judgment. Be sensitive to the room. If it’s the right thing to do, go ahead and hug. If you’re best friends with your coworker or even client, or it’s just a hugging atmosphere and you’re certain nobody is going to be uncomfortable, hug away. Knock yourself out. If you know five out of the six people well and have hugged them all, maybe that’s the time to ask the sixth if they want a hug also.

But if they tell you they have a cold, take the hint, and shake their hand.


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