September 4th is National Hug Your Boss Day. At first glance, some employees would shudder at the idea of physically embracing an employer, even when done with permission, as they can see it as offensive and mentally disconcerting in the workplace. On the other hand, a small amount of physical affections among the right people can show appreciation.
Gary Chapman and Paul White believe in the “Five Language of Appreciation in the Workplace,” a book advocating for a friendly and symbiotic way of earning a living. One of those languages is “Physical Touch.” Chapman and White have found this language the least used in the workplace, as people in their surveys felt nervous at the idea of touching in the workplace. The authors do believe it has its place depending on the culture, individuals, type of touch and the reason for the action.
For example, if two coworkers are very friendly and one of them recently had a personal loss, a hug could be an appropriate way of establishing support. Some managers may indeed appreciate a hug for the right occasion. More common are handshakes, high fives and pats on the back. Most important is asking for permission to maintain a sense of physical autonomy and safety in the workplace.
“The truth is that workers have very different levels of tolerance for physical contact of any type,” said Amy Epstein Feldman, general counsel of the Judge Group Inc., a Pennsylvania-based consulting and staffing firm. “In fact, because a person’s individual sensitivities… varies so widely, inappropriate touching — from a happy slap on the back to a welcoming kiss on the cheek to an angry pointed finger in someone’s chest — are all the subject of complaints to management.”
Rachel Zupek, a contributing writer at CareerBuilder.com, finds the lines fickle in the workplace. She notes that different kinds of touching are obviously inappropriate in the workplace, such as hands on private parts. Less clear is how different people see certain physical gestures. Some workers may like the two-handed shake and eye contact while others can feel intimidated. A hand on the shoulder from the boss could put the subordinate on the edge while others could see it as appreciation.
In cases of uncomfortable touching, Zupek recommends workers communicate with the other person and ask to stop, either in jest to start (for that subtle hint) or directly (refusing to beat around the bush). If the toucher doesn’t respond well and comply, going to management or human resources is an option. No one should have to suffer a hostile workplace.