Hugs in the workplace: Acceptable or personal-space invasion?

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The hug. It’s a simple gesture that can make a happy situation happier or help someone overcome with sadness feel a little better. Studies have shown that hugs can actually make a difference in one’s health; research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that a hug can lower blood pressure and reduce the harmful physical effects of stress.

Hugs are thought to be so beneficial, there’s even a day dedicated to celebrating the gift of a hug. Jan. 21 has been deemed “National Hugging Day,” and according to the organizer’s website, the day was “created for family and friends to hug often and freely with one another.”

Yet, when it comes to hugging in the workplace, the act may become less of a kind gesture and more of a liability. According to a survey by staffing agency The Creative Group, seven in 10 executives interviewed said embracing co-workers in a business setting is inappropriate.

“The thing about hugging in the workplace is that if it makes anyone uncomfortable, there can be legal ramifications,” says Donna Flagg, workplace communications expert and author of “Surviving Dreaded Conversations.” “And because of hostile work environment and sexual harassment suits, innocent hugging is always vulnerable to being construed as something else — that is, something not so innocent.”

So is hugging a co-worker or showing any signs of physical affection ever acceptable? Or is it better to avoid any gesture that could be considered a personal-space invasion? While opinions may differ, here are some things to think about when going in for an office hug.

Consider where you work
To determine if hugs are tolerated in your workplace, first think about where you work. The type of company it is and the culture it promotes may give you some clues as to whether signs of affection would be acceptable. Is your company more by-the-book, or is it laid back in its methods or practices? Does the company culture encourage working in teams and being open to others, or is it more of an independent, cut-throat, every-man-for-himself environment?

In addition, the type of field you work in can make a difference. If you work in a more corporate environment, affection may be frowned upon. But some fields — health care, for instance — may be more open to hugging, and the act may even be part of the job.

“In my world, there are times when hugging is the most appropriate thing to do,” says Dr. Diane Radford, a surgical oncologist specializing in breast cancer. “There are times when I interact with patients that giving or receiving a hug is part of the whole spectrum of communication … A hug can be a reassuring way of indicating they will be OK, but I’m there if they need me. One has to be astute and know when a hug is the right thing to do. In my workplace, it often is the right thing to do.”

Take cues from others
It’s also important to keep in mind that everyone has different comfort levels when it comes to public displays of affection, especially with people who aren’t family or close friends. While you may love giving hugs, they may make your cube mate uncomfortable.

“Recognizing that not everyone shares the same personal-boundary line is essential to maintaining a pleasant and professional workplace environment,” says Roshini Rajkumar, a national speaker and communication/image expert.

“Remember that personal touch is not about intention, but rather, how it is perceived by the person receiving the touch. If they are uncomfortable, then the touch is wrong. Be aware of co-workers’ personal boundaries before entering into a ‘physical relationship’ with them, no matter how passive or limited the touch.”

Respect cultural differences
Someone’s comfort level for workplace affection may be influenced by their age, upbringing or cultural background. While some cultures embrace hugging, others show respect or thanks in other ways, so it’s important to keep such differences in mind.

Also consider one’s gender and role within the company. Hugging someone of another gender could more easily be misconstrued than hugging someone of the same sex. There may be sensitivities around hugging a boss or subordinate but not necessarily around hugging a peer.

“Keep in mind the recipient’s gender and ethnicity,” Rajkumar says. “Different cultures have different boundaries … Generations have different expectations as well. Today’s younger generation is more touchy-feely, while the older generation is more formal.”

Watch how you hug
There are different ways you can hug someone, and they can mean different things. Hugging from the front or back may be awkward, but a casual side hug could appear less threatening and personal.

“A big smothering bear hug may not be appropriate, but the handshake and one arm around the shoulder hug — which tends to be more of a hit-and-run type of hug — could work fine,” says Regina Barr, founder and CEO of Red Ladder Inc., a consulting, executive coaching and speaking company. “The latter hug might be more comfortable for folks in the workplace, because it’s a hybrid hug.”

If in doubt, handshake it out
“If you work in a friendly/casual environment, you may be able to substitute hugging for handshaking, but when in doubt, don’t hug,” Rajkumar suggests. “It’s usually best to err on the side of caution when it comes to physical displays of affection. Consider a big smile and enthusiastically clasping your hands together while you express gratitude verbally as an alternative.” Rajkumar also recommends high fives or shoulder claps as other ways to communicate physically without overstepping.

While there’s no right answer to whether or not hugging in the workplace is appropriate, there’s still no argument that a good hug can make someone’s day a little brighter. Just make sure it’s warranted and welcomed.

Do you think hugs or other signs of affection are acceptable in the workplace? Or do you think they are inappropriate? Tell us in the comments section below.  

  1. It is a very common practice in India. When two people meet after sometime, hug is the first thing they will do..It is considered a very sweet gesture and enhances the goodwill amongst people.That is why it is considered a very informal gesture too from the both sides and it is not considered offensive as it is considered in USA. It is also a sign of affectionate gesture from the sides.It also shows how cordial a person is. In reality it is more or less a daily routine. I would also like to put it this way that hand shake is not that important because it is more formal than being informal.

    I think at work place one needs to be a little formal than being informal.To back up my discussion workplace is the place where one dresses up in suit or a tie because the environment is more formal that is why handshake is more appropriate than hugging.

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  5. I, myself, am a hugger. I have been told on many occasions that they needed a hug and thanked me for it. And, then again at the same place I got told to study the person for the hug because there was one person, same culture as myself, felt uncomfortable. I don’t understand what makes them feel so uncomfortable. When I hug I am trying to brighten one’s day and consider them good people.

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