A handshake. A pat on the back. A hug. A shoulder rub.
When it comes to workplace contact, what’s OK and what’s not?
A good rule of thumb, from lawyers and etiquette experts alike: if you’re considering anything beyond a handshake, proceed with caution.
“Most healthy workplaces that I know of, people aren’t really touching each other,” says San Francisco attorney Kelly Armstrong. “There might be an employee going through a difficult time, and maybe they come and share that with you and maybe at the end of that they might come and give you a quick hug — maybe. But it’s rare. Or it should be.”
Some touching could be intended as innocent, but could be received in a negative way. Even seemingly simple gestures like hugs or pats can be viewed differently by different people.
“I’d say that sexual harassment victims have an uncanny ability to know when something feels ‘off,'” Armstrong says. “So they’ll say, ‘Well, he hugged me, but I could feel him pressing up extra hard against me.'”
In terms of legal action, Armstrong says a pattern of touching in the workplace can be described as sexual harassment when it’s defined as “severe and pervasive.”
“So, ‘severe’ could be something such as grabbing someone’s breast or a rape,” she says. “The act on its own is so severe that it rises to the level of sexual harassment. ‘Pervasive’ is usually a body of conduct, or a pattern and practice of conduct, that over time, rises to a level that is defined as sexual harassment.”
Related: How Anita Hill forever changed the way we talk about sexual harassment
In the world of workplace etiquette, even the Emily Post Institute echoes Armstrong’s handshake rule.
“I tell people not to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. If there’s an office hugger and you don’t feel comfortable, it’s OK to set a boundary, to let people know, what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not comfortable with,” says etiquette expert Daniel Post Senning. “There’s subtle ways to do it, like using a handshake.”
Post Senning advises people pay attention to the non-verbal cues coworkers use to signal their comfort (or discomfort): when they cringe, step away or recoil from a gesture.
And if you’re the person experiencing the touch, say “I’m not a hugger” or forcibly put an arm’s distance between yourself and the pat on the back. Both signals are simple, but demonstrably make your preferences clear.
And if there’s any doubt at all as to whether the touch is appropriate, always reflect on how it would have felt differently if substituted for a handshake, the formal standard for workplace touch.
“If you think to yourself, ‘Would I approach the male colleague that I have and put my hands on his shoulders and massage them? Would that feel different to me than if I approached a female colleague?'” Post Senning says. “And if it did feel different to you, that means you’re probably talking about a level of intimacy that you want to be careful about in professional settings or environments.”