Professional boundaries: Understanding hugging etiquette in workplace

The do's and don'ts when it comes to hugging at work

In Summary
  • Hugging a friend or friends is one thing, but hugging colleagues is a whole different ball game.
  • Be careful and avoid making your colleagues  feel uncomfortable
Image: Victor Imboto

Hugging friends is one thing, but hugging colleagues is a whole thing on its own.

You might hug a friend when you greet them, when they’re sad, or when they share some good news with you. But when any of these things happen in the office, hugging is often not the way to go.

In an interview with Benjamin Zulu, a psychologist, he gave the dos and don’ts of hugging etiquette at work.

Here are some of them: 

Don’t hug if in doubt

If you’re thinking about hugging a colleague, but you’re worried about how they might react, then just don't hug them.

Go for a high five or use your words. There are plenty of ways you can greet someone, without running the risk of an awkward or unwanted hug. 

Do not hug clients

Resist at all costs the urge to hug a client, even if you’ve just got great results on a project or haven’t seen them in ages.

Hugging may come across as unprofessional and you’re representing your company here. Stick to handshakes when you want to convey how much you value the working relationship you have with the client. 

Reciprocate a hug if you are comfortable

If you love to hug people and a colleague goes in for a friendly hello hug, do not push them away.

If you’re comfortable with the hug, hug back!  Just be sure to keep it short and platonic. 

Reciprocate however another person greets you

If you are a hugger and love tight embraces but your colleague extends their hand for a handshake, respect this greeting.

The same goes for anyone who makes it clear they prefer different types of greetings.

Apologise if you give an unwanted hug  

If you go in for what you think is a friendly hug, but the other person pulls away, it's communication that they are uncomfortable, don’t panic, but don’t ignore the situation either. .

Usually, a quick apology can make it clear to ease the tension and that the hug was a friendly one.

Speak up if you don't want a hug

If you don't anticipate a hug, go in for a different kind of greeting before they get the chance to reach out their arms. Stick your hand out for a handshake or fist bump.

If someone has already started initiating the hug, it’s time to say something, to divert from the hug situation.

A quick, light-hearted yet firm comment should be enough to put an end to it. When someone reaches in say something like: 

“I’m not much of a hugger, high five instead?” 

Ask for permission to hug

If you want to hug a person, then it is wise to ask for permission. If they do not want a hug then don't force a hug on them but if they don't mind a hug then that is your queue to hug.

Hug close colleagues

If you’re very close with a colleague, meet up with them outside of work, and know details about their life, you’re probably safe to go in for a friendly hug.

But even then, use caution. You’re still colleagues, and you never know how they’ll feel about a hug, especially if you’re going in for one at work. 

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