July 10, 2012 at 7:15 AM ET
James Lee was having a friendly chat with the president of the university where he works when it happened to him: The awkward co-worker hug.
Lee, 44, and the university president were at a fundraising event, and Lee realized that there were other people waiting to talk to them. Forgetting for a moment that this was a professional and not a personal context, Lee went in for the hug instead of the handshake.
He can still recall in vivid detail what happened next.
“It was a long moment for me because halfway in, I realized what was about to happen. At that point, however, my body had already hit his outstretched arm that was expecting a handshake, and I knew that I couldn't call it off. I completed the awkward, inappropriate embrace,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Mortified, Lee found the nearest exit and made his escape.
In today’s casual office environment, where people wear shorts and flip-flops to work and are encouraged to bond with the boss at happy hour or other after-hours events, it can be hard to know whether to hug or not to hug.
“You usually don’t see in the code of conduct, ‘No hugging,’” said Pamela Eyring, president of The Protocol School of Washington, which offers business etiquette training. “So it makes the lines very blurred.”
Most office etiquette experts say that generally, an arms-off policy is best. And yet, most admit that they too have been in a situation where they’ve either given, or received, an awkward co-worker hug.
Lee, a sociology professor at San Jose State University, said the 2011 episode with his university’s president still embarrasses him. He thinks it’s partly because he’s openly gay, and he worried that the hug would be misinterpreted by others at the event.
After the incident, Lee only saw the university president once more before he retired.
“He came over and he stuck his hand out,” Lee said. “We shook hands, we talked.”
Etiquette and protocol trainer Rachel Wagner knows how Lee feels. She, too, recalls a social event where she was talking to a colleague and, in a sudden burst of joviality, hugged the woman.
“It just happened, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m hugging,'” she said.
Almost immediately, Wagner realized she shouldn’t have hugged that person. But she never said anything, and the incident blew over.
The social trick of just pretending something didn’t happen often works best in such situations. If you do feel the need to address it, do so quickly and with humor, experts advise.
“A self-deprecating confession can make a world of difference,” said Jim Webber, who provides workplace training on preventing harassment and runs an advice blog called Evil Skippy at Work.
Webber says there are times when a hug at work is appropriate, such as when someone has just received terrible personal news or gotten word they have been laid off.
But even then there are ground rules.
For one, he says, you should think of the office hug like fishing: “Hug and release.”
“You should not be able to have a conversation at work while I hug you,” he said.
Also, your fingers should not move during the hug.
A hug can quickly turn inappropriate if it feels like the person is using it to gain power or bully other employees. Webber recalled one situation where a male employee was hugging female employees for just a little too long and with a smirk in his eyes. Asked about it, Webber said the man said that if the “little ladies” didn’t like it, all they had to do was tell him.
In another incident, he said, a female employee told male co-workers, “I’m just a cougar, give me a hug!” When one objected, Webber said she told him to “take it like a man.”
Even well-meaning hugs can make some people feel uncomfortable.
“Most of us don’t want that intimacy with our co-workers. We have to be with them 40 hours a week. We don’t want to hug them, too,” Webber said.
(Webber himself is not a hugger, although he’s had the equally mortifying experience of accidentally saying, “Bye-bye, sweetie” or “I love you” to a client when ending a phone conversation.)
An errant hug is generally not going to be enough to prompt a harassment complaint. Carol Miaskoff, assistant legal counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said the line would be crossed if there was a clear and pervasive pattern of unwanted physical attention.
Still, it can be complicated, especially in workplaces where there’s a culture of hugging and affection. Her advice: If you don’t like hugging, make sure you are clear about it.
“A clear dividing line is if someone says, ‘Don’t hug me,’” she said.
Part of the issue is that American workplaces tend to be more casual than in most countries, and the lines between work and personal life are often blurred by everything from office romances to friending on Facebook.
“We’re a very casual nation, but there are still work environments that are very formal,” said Eyring, of the Protocol School of Washington.
Eyring said whether or not to hug also depends on where you are.
For example, she said a colleague visiting from another location might give her a hug if they meet at the office. But if they saw each other at a class she was leading, a handshake would send a more appropriate message.
“He’s showing respect,” she said.
A public hug, especially between a male and female co-worker, also can give the wrong impression that there’s more to the acquaintance than there really is.
Patti Johnson, a career coach and founder of the consultancy PeopleResults, advises people to use hugs sparingly and only when you’re sure the person will be amenable to it.
A big clue that you shouldn’t hug the person: The outstretched arm indicating that the person is clearly expecting a handshake.
In some cases, a hug can hurt more than it helps. Johnson recalled a time when she was part of a group selecting a vendor for a company. One of the candidates, whom she knew casually, greeted her with a big, and unexpected, hug.
“It was like he was trying to make it appear to the group that we were really good buddies,” she said.
That wasn’t the main reason he didn’t get the account, but it didn’t help.
On the other hand, Johnson said that when her mother-in-law passed away recently, she appreciated her co-workers’ kindness.
“I had a lot of hugs in the workplace and that was nice,” she said. “It wasn’t inappropriate.”
Donna Farrugia, executive director of the Creative Group, a staffing agency for marketing and advertising professionals, thinks people have become more conservative with such displays in recent years, as harassment awareness has become more widespread.
Still, she it would be sad if hugging were to become altogether taboo.
“I have clients that I’ve done business with for a long time, and you can kind of feel it as you walk toward each other (that) there’s going to be a little hug happening here, and it’s a good thing,” she said.
Readers, do you have any awkward or heartwarming stories about hugging at work? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, and we’ll feature some of your stories in a follow-up piece.
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