Hugging in the Workplace: Is it Okay to Hug a Coworker?

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that hugging at work can create a hostile work environment if the hugging is unwelcome and pervasive. Yolo County Sheriff Edward G. Prieto was charged with inappropriately hugging a female correctional officer over 100 times within a 12-year period. At one point Prieto hugged the correctional officer to congratulate her on her marriage. To some people, this behavior may seem harmless and friendly, but the correctional officer thought Prieto’s hugs were inappropriate and, ultimately, the court agreed.

So, does this mean that if you hug a longtime coworker in a congratulatory way, he or she will file a sexual harassment complaint against you? Not usually. But hugging in a professional environment can certainly cause confusion. While some coworkers may welcome hugs, others do not want to be touched — even if you have the best of intentions. But when is hugging at work okay? These guidelines for hugging in the workplace can help you decide when it may be an appropriate time to hug a colleague, and when you should probably just opt for the standard handshake.

Guidelines for Hugging in the Workplace

1) You Can Probably Hug Your Close Friends (But Not All the Time)

If you work with one of your best buddies from college, greeting him with a hug at work is likely something that wouldn’t be cause for alarm. The same goes when you develop close relationships with coworkers after years of knowing them inside and outside of work. But just don’t make hugs a habit with your close-knit coworkers. Reserving hugs for when the time is right (e.g. engagement, birthday, pregnancy, promotion, etc.) will probably make things seem less awkward for everyone involved — including other colleagues who witness the hugging.

2) You Can Probably Hug Someone If You Ask (and They Say it’s OK)

Perhaps a long-time member of your team tells you that she was just promoted to an upper management position. While you may be excited for your close coworker, don’t just go in for the congratulatory hug. Instead, ask if you can give her a hug. If she says yes, then you can probably go for it — as long as you don’t feel like she is uncertain or not feeling the hug. Sometimes people are embarrassed to say no, especially if they are put on the spot. If you feel negative energy, simply say, “Congratulations!” and move on with your workday.

3) You Shouldn’t Hug Someone You Supervise

If you are a manager or supervisor, workplace hugs are always inappropriate. A boss should keep things professional in the workplace, so hugging your subordinates is completely out of the question — no exceptions. Because of the power dynamic between the relationships with you and your employees, a hug that you may think is friendly could be considered unwelcome physical touching for those you manage. Additionally, hugs may seem like you are using your status to disrespect the boundaries of your employees. Don’t be that boss. Keep things professional by greeting your employees with a smile, and shake hands when congratulating them on successes.

4) You Shouldn’t Give Long, Lingering Hugs

So, your close friend at work has announced her pregnancy, and accepted your offer to hug her with an enthusiastic, “Of course!” While this may feel great to you, don’t keep the hug going longer than it should. Making workplace hugs brief (no more than a few seconds) is a surefire way to keep things on a professional level without things going from friendly to completely awkward. And whatever you do, don’t close your eyes – it could be off putting to the onlookers.

5) You Shouldn’t Hug a Coworker with Whom You’re Romantically Involved

When you are involved in an office romance, then it may seem only natural to hug a colleague you’re dating or even if you’re married to each other. However, you should refrain from hugging your loved one in front of others — especially if you hold a supervisory role. So, save those long embraces and sweet nothings for when you’re outside the office. Staying professional even when you’re romantically involved with a coworker will show your colleagues that you respect their feelings and aren’t playing favorites.

If you find yourself still questioning whether a workplace hug is appropriate, then it likely isn’t. It’s always best to err on the side of caution.

What if You Aren’t a Hugger?

If you aren’t one to give hugs, you likely don’t ever want to be hugged by a coworker. When you are in a situation where you may think someone will try to hug you, stick out your hand to initiate the standard handshake instead. Or, be completely direct and tell someone who goes in for a hug that you simply aren’t a hugger. A reasonable person will be completely fine with you establishing your personal boundaries, but if someone repeatedly tries to hug you, or makes other inappropriate physical advancements, you could have a harassment case on your hands. If your boss or a coworker makes you feel uncomfortable in the workplace or uneasy due to inappropriate touching (including hugs), talk to your human resources department.

Workplace Harassment Lawyers in Los Angeles

If you feel that your California employer is subjecting you to inappropriate touching or sexual harassment, it’s important to consult an experienced employment attorney right away. Contact the passionate Los Angeles employment lawyers at Hennig Ruiz for a free consultation.