UK staff are becoming increasingly wary of physical contact when greeting clients or colleagues, according to new research from TotalJobs. 
In a survey of 2,000 employees between the ages of 18 and 65, the recruitment platform discovered that 38% of that sample find workplace greetings awkward – with a quarter actively avoiding encounters with specific colleagues or clients because of the types of greetings those individuals are reputed to bestow.
Some 76% want instances of physical contact at work to be reduced, with 42% going even further and calling for an outright ban on particular interactions – from the cheek or air kiss (27%) to surprise hugs (15%).
The UK’s preferred form of workplace greeting is a firm handshake, accompanied by around two seconds of direct eye contact, which helps to create a comfort zone on either side of the interaction. But while almost half (45%) of workers in their 40s and 50s prefer handshakes to any other type of greeting, only 35% of those in their 20s feel the same way – with just over two-fifths (41%) of that age group preferring no physical contact whatsoever when greeting clients or colleagues.
Given those figures, it is perhaps unsurprising that 68% of workers are calling upon their employers to provide them with clear guidance on what constitutes an appropriate workplace greeting.
Psychologist and body language expert Jo Hemmings – who has teamed up with TotalJobs on this research – says: “Interactions in the workplace have become a confusing and difficult terrain in recent years. Navigating what ostensibly seems like a simple ‘hello,’ is now a minefield for both initiator and recipient.”
Hemmings notes that the #MeToo movement has empowered female and male staff alike to speak out about behaviour-related discomforts in the workplace, adding: “It’s clearly a highly complex, embarrassing, even humiliating subject and we all have an opinion on what is right and what is wrong.
“So, in an age where workers worry they may be called out by HR following a consensual hug with a colleague or a supportive hand on the shoulder, it is important for companies to step up and offer much-needed guidance for staff around the rules of engagement in the workplace.”
For any senior figure looking to become a better leader, this is certainly a challenging area to navigate. Which ethical dimensions of this terrain must bosses bear in mind as they aim to create workplaces in which staff feel happy and safe?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “There are three aspects to this. Firstly, there’s what individuals and broader cultures consider to be appropriate proximity: the extent to which it’s permissible to enter someone else’s space and make physical contact. Given the wide variety of individual preferences and cultural norms, that is a difficult area to gauge.
“Secondly, when we talk about physical contact in the workplace, we’re looking at that in the context of people with whom we have contractual, rather than voluntary, relationships – and those relationships can change. So, a colleague could become your manager – or indeed, you could become their manager, which would make you responsible for doing their appraisal, setting their performance-related pay, signing off on their probationary period and/or approving them for a promotion. Such formality also extends to your dealings with suppliers and customers. We develop these relationships in a professional atmosphere – so if you introduce elements into them that are more common to the informal settings of friendships or family, there is bound to be a minefield. We simply don’t know – nor can we assume – what people’s tolerances are for particular types of physical contact.
“Thirdly, there are issues of power – or, more specifically, imbalances. Power relationships are rarely equal. By definition, they play out on a hierarchical stage. Of course, hugging can be a force for good. But we cannot decide that it is good for us to hug someone if they do not want to be hugged – and we must not use any power we have in the workplace as leverage for making such decisions.”
Cooper notes: “If we factor in traditional, British reserve, and the difficulties we often have in this country with speaking out against behaviours we don’t like – as we at the Institute found last year in our research on banter – people are highly unlikely to say, ‘Stop hugging me – that’s making me uncomfortable.’ They are more likely to avoid situations in which it may happen. Like so much of what we do, that avoidance reflex becomes habitual, and we don’t even think about it. We begin to almost unconsciously avoid colleagues or customers who put us in that uncomfortable place.”
So, what does all this mean for how leaders shape workplace protocols? Cooper adds: “It seems harsh to say, ‘Let’s ban hugging and/or handshakes in the workplace.’ But how else are you going to protect those people who, for all sorts of reasons, don’t want such types of contact, and feel unable to speak up about it? If you make these matters the problem of the individual, then the attention is focused in the wrong place. In formulating policy, leaders must be mindful of so many different variables – and this territory has more than most.”
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