Would you leave a Post-It on your boss’s desk saying: “Hello, please don’t touch me”?
If you work a 9-5 job, you’ll likely spend a minimum of 1,680 hours at work each year with your colleagues (and that’s not including those gruelling overtime hours). With some research suggesting that it takes around 200 hours to become good friends with someone, it makes sense that most colleagues eventually become close. This can make it very easy for the boundaries of professionalism to smudge.
While a hug or a pat on the shoulder might be appropriate behaviour with one colleague, it could cause great offence to another. When it comes to touching at work, it’s very easy to cross a boundary.
It’s all relative
The way in which colleagues physically interact with each other is likely to differ from industry to industry and even from organisation to organisation.
Recent research from Robert Half affiliate The Creative Group, surveying 400 US advertising and marketing managers, showed that 65 per cent said it was somewhat or very common for colleagues to embrace each other, and 23 per cent said it’s very common to hug their clients or other business contacts.
“Generally speaking, unless you’re sure it’s going to be OK to hug someone, stick with a handshake. It’s a universally accepted and globally understood gesture of goodwill and friendship,” Daniel Post Senning, author of The Etiquette Advantage in Business, 3rd Edition, told Robert Half.
The five second rule?
So can employees touch each other at work? According to another etiquette expert, yes, but within reason.
In a recent article for Quartz, Jodi Smith, founder of etiquette consulting firm Mannersmith says, “I don’t think we need to live in a world in which no one touches anyone else. There are ways we can be respectful and figure out the different levels [that people are comfortable with].”
There are many important benefits to come from human-to-human physical contact. It’s a great way to express empathy, curb loneliness and build connections between people. Touch has always been an important part of being human but workplaces have changed that status quo – and for good reason.
Before the #MeToo movement took off, it was more common for people to turn a blind eye to inappropriate forms of touching in the workplace and for those experiencing it not to report it. But since high-profile perpetrators have been publicly outed, tolerance is wearing thin.
The movement has been so powerful that even seemingly innocent forms of touch have come under the spotlight. People have started to think twice before they act, and while some feel they’re walking on eggshells most agree this is a very good thing.
In her article, Smith raises some valid points – such as most hand-to-hand contact being appropriate at work – but she also offers a strange piece of advice. Smith, who has a background in HR, says “a light tap on the shoulder, a quick pat on the back that’s less than five seconds, those tend to be okay.”
While you can assume she means a tap on the shoulder to signify a job well done is okay, when you think about what she’s actually saying, five seconds is a really long time. Also, analysing the appropriate length of time to touch a colleague seems like a redundant exercise. If someone doesn’t want to be touched at all, it doesn’t really make a difference if you do it for 1, 2 or 5 seconds.
When you get too specific with workplace rules, employees are less likely to take it seriously. Take Netflix’s own version of the five second rule. According to an on-set runner who spoke to The Sun, the streaming giant introduced new guidelines once #metoo began in earnest.
“Senior staff went to a harassment meeting to learn what is and isn’t appropriate. Looking at anyone longer than five seconds is considered creepy,” the source said.
Netflix’s published response to the article neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the policy, but the source goes on to say that staff made fun of the new rule. “It has sparked jokes, with people looking at each other, counting to five, then diverting their eyes.”
If people are actively engaging in the banned behaviour, the intended message is lost.
Smith also says people should avoid touching colleagues anywhere that’s not their arms, shoulders, or upper back. But applying blanket rules and exceptions around touch can be dangerous.
For example, while those areas are the most likely parts of you’d touch without really thinking about it – to get someone’s attention for example – to deem it appropriate without context might not work for everyone. Consistent “harmless” touches under those circumstances would be much harder to complain about in comparison to a single more obviously inappropriate act.
You can’t touch this
For managers and leaders who define themselves as “touchy-feely”, Smith says the key is to be open about this from the outset. She says being upfront gives team members who don’t want to be touched the opportunity to respond, whether that be in person, via email or through a Post-It note.
But it’s really not that simple.
For example, if one employee doesn’t like to be touched but another is okay with it, the manager may inadvertently end up showing more affection towards the employee who isn’t phased, leading to an unintentional case of favouritism.
Also, who would actually be comfortable to drop their boss a note saying: “Hi, please don’t touch me. Kind regards”?
I can understand and agree with the sentiment Smith is trying to get across; employees should have full control over their bodies. I just don’t think the onus should be on the individual to tell others not to touch them. I myself am quite a touchy person. If I see something on someone’s face, my first instinct is to reach out and brush it away. But when I’m at work, I make sure to think twice. It’s not the responsibility of my colleagues to swat my hand away, that’s on me.
To be clear, Smith isn’t saying that managers should be allowed to touch whoever they want unless explicitly told otherwise (she says the opposite), I take issue with her advice that those working under a touchy-feely manager should be the ones to set the boundaries. A no-touching policy should be a given, with exceptions made for people who’ve specifically decided they’re okay receiving friendly hug or shoulder squeeze.
Not always sexual
It’s important to consider the difference power dynamics can make. You might be happy to receive a hug from your co-worker but if the CEO of your company came towards you with outstretched arms that’s a different story.
In the case of Talevsi v Chalmers Industries Pty Ltd, Mr Talevsi was dismissed for constantly touching a female colleague’s hair and shoulders. The woman, who was below him in seniority, said that while she didn’t feel his advances were sexual, it still made her feel uncomfortable.
The woman didn’t want to make a formal complaint, but spoke to other coworkers about Talevsi’s behaviour. Eventually, the news made its way to the company’s CFO, Mr Hardden, who says that when he approached Talevsi about his behaviour he “became abusive and threatening towards him, thumping his desk and accusing Mr Harnden of harassment”. When Talevsi first heard that Hardden wanted to speak with him, he “repeatedly approached” the woman and asked why she had complained about him. At one point, this resulted in her crying in the bathroom.
Giving him a chance to redeem himself, the company asked that he no longer entered the main building of the company for non-work related purposes and not to seek out employees for conversation. He breached this agreement when he again tried to speak with the woman he’d been touching and was then summarily dismissed.
The rules around touching are always circumstantial. I hugged one of my colleagues today; it’s her birthday. We’re both of a similar age, we’re both women and there’s no difference in our level of power in our office. But when in doubt, don’t hug it out.
Read HRM’s previous article on hugging in the workplace.
To train employees on appropriate workplace behaviour, HR can get up to speed on the best techniques through AHRI’s short course ‘Bullying and Harassment’.