Prepare for a statement that’s sure to sound the alarm bells of HR departments all over: “handshakes have given way to bearhugs in some corners of the corporate world”. What’s the deal with all this workplace hugging?
In the bad old days, a strong handshake was about as physical as it got in the office. Of course, sexual harassment ran rampant and there were few consequences for the transgressors (cue flashbacks to the most confronting office scenes in Mad Men). But by and large, familiarity with work colleagues rarely extended to the physical.
That’s all gone the way of the workaday hat and gloves; now employees are encouraged to bond deeply with colleagues – and organisations are shelling out funds for team building days, escape rooms and other activities that encourage people to see their desk mates as more than simply resources and talent to be mined. It’s all part of the broader trend as workplaces become more casual and the lines between work and life blur.
And it seems part of this trend is the triumphant (?) ascent of the workplace hug.
The rise of the work hug
The number of advertising and marketing executives who described coworker hugging as “common” has shot up 24 percentage points in the past five years, according to a 2016 survey by Creative Group (a staffing agency owned by Robert Half International Inc).
With good reason, some are saying. According to a recent editorial by the Wall Street Journal, hugs offer a multitude of benefits you may not have considered.
- Fosters teamwork;
- Promotes better business outcomes;
- Creates a culture of trust in the workplace
To those of us who shudder at the prospect of the workplace high five (call us old-fashioned, or maybe we’re just antisocial) a full-blown bearhug is deep out there in uncharted waters.
The HR perspective: good or bad?
From the HR perspective, there’s an added risk. At what point does an enthusiastic hug veer towards a “grope”. Where and how does consent come into it? And how does this fit with a company’s workplace code of conduct. Is a “hugging policy” an imminent addition to the manual?
A recent court decision in the US sided with a plaintiff who complained that a supervisor doled out more than 100 unwelcome hugs over 12 years. Cases like this have led Aaron Goldstein, a partner with law firm Dorsey & Whitney LLP’s labor and employment group, to advise against initiating hugs in the workplace.
Alison Green of workplace advice blog ‘Ask a Manager’ agrees. She says she has fielded dozens of questions from employees concerned about office hugging.
Many huggers “seem to feel they’re really good at judging when someone wants a hug, but based on what the non-huggers are saying, they’re wrong about that,” she says.
On the other hand, there’s more than just anecdotal evidence on the benefits of a good hug.
Similar to grabbing coffee for a colleague, “actions like hugging can show ‘companionate love’ at work”, says Sigal Barsade, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Her research finds that affectionate and caring organisations have less burnout and absenteeism and higher levels of employee satisfaction.
“You don’t lose your job if you don’t hug”
The key to navigating this new, affectionate world may be how well it is communicated within the workplace.
Sam Lavoie is a 23-year-old software developer at Canada-based, “hug-friendly” company Dovico. He explains that after being hugged unexpectedly by the organisation’s CEO at his job interview; once hired, he quickly expressed his stance on the practice.
“I’m an open, self-admitted, non-hugger,” he says. “Flat out. Never have been, never will be.”
And though he and his fellow non-huggers at the organisation comprise the minority, there are no hard feelings when they are offered a warm handshake instead. “You don’t lose your job if you don’t hug.”
At fashion retailer Ted Baker’s London HQ, a circle around CEO Ray Kelvin’s desk is labeled the “hug zone”. About five times a day, he says, someone will stand within its confines and receive a hearty embrace.
However, “we don’t just hug for the sake of hugging,” he says. The practice began about 12 years ago, when bad arthritis made handshakes painful.
The conclusion seems to be that, as long as there are clear guidelines – and those who do not wish to participate are respected – the humble hug does in fact promote significant benefits for the workplace.
What kinds of hugs are acceptable in the workplace? Watch this video on the ‘Taxonomy of Corporate Hugging’.
What are your thoughts on the growing acceptability of hugging in the workplace?