Bill Clinton, George HW Bush, Donald Trump, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin. That’s an off-the-top-of-my-head list of powerful and influential men accused of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior (like pinching butts during photo ops). Sadly, the list of men who have abused their positions of power in this way would be pages long if I were to do the research, and it will undoubtedly keep growing because men in power will continue to behave this way.
What is changing, hopefully, is that their victims are refusing to stay silent. If that causes men to pause and worry about their every interaction with the people over whom they have some power or influence, then so be it.
For as long as I can remember the places I’ve worked have had a no-closed-door policy for one-on-one meetings between members of the opposite sex unless there’s a large window that allows others to see into the room. The reasons for that are easy enough to understand, and most people I’ve met who manage other people follow that rule pretty closely.
There is, however, one custom that is not ubiquitous but is widespread enough, that I think we need to address it in the context of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior: hugging in a business environment. While hugging is not my preferred mode of greeting anyone to whom I’m not related or very good (personal) friends with, I’m often confronted with offered hugs at business meetings. It could be at a conference, or a lunch meeting, or even a regular meeting: there’s often someone who wants to hug and I’m put in the no-win position of offending them if I refuse to hug, or giving a hug that makes me feel awkward.
Now, this is nothing new for me. I didn’t grow up in a huggy family, so when I went to college and suddenly had girls I barely new offering up hugs I wasn’t sure what to do about it. That feeling has continued throughout my career, and now I’ve come to believe that some people sense it because they shake hands with me while hugging the person standing next to me, which I’m totally good with. So, not hugging is actually my default preference.
There are, however, plenty of people who insist on the hug and I’m becoming firmer in my belief that hugging has no place in a business setting for the same reason that I don’t think it’s a good idea to have closed-door, one-on-one meetings with a member of the opposite sex. Simply put, if I give 100 hugs there’s a very high likelihood that all would be okay, but there’s also the small chance that someone will find it inappropriate. What if the hug was held for what that person felt was just a little too long? What if they think I’m sniffing their hair for some odd reason? What if they feel the hug was a little too tight? What if they feel like my hands were in the wrong place? Hell, what if in the course of the hug my hand accidentally brushes somewhere inappropriate?
I’m sure this sounds like nitpicking, or maybe even like a guy going to extremes in reaction to stories in the news, but I’m okay with that. You see, I prefer an environment where everyone involved is in a position to be comfortable doing their jobs. One of the reasons we have social norms is to help people understand what is appropriate behavior in a variety of situations. While shaking hands has its own downside, whether it’s the person trying to break your knuckles or the person with a cold trying to infect you, there is almost zero risk of it being taken as inappropriate touching.
So here’s my plea: let’s add hugging to the list of things that are better not done at work, along with talking about religion and politics. It might seem stiff and formal, but in today’s reality, it’s better for everyone involved.