Avoiding Harassment at Work: Appropriate Physical Contact

Sexual harassment has dominated the headlines of late. That keen awareness can make people second-guess office interactions. But we can’t simply avoid certain coworkers, and treating them differently creates another form of discrimination.

However, if we examine our motives and use a common-sense approach, we can contribute to a workplace that is safe and inviting to everyone. After all, that’s key to productivity and morale.

Earlier, we addressed verbal interactions — positive compliments in the workplace. Now, let’s take a look at physical interactions. In both cases, it’s helpful to make sure you truly are trying to make someone feel appreciated and aren’t operating based on an underlying motive.

Here are some of our Frequently Asked Questions about appropriate physical contact in the workplace:

Should I just avoid physical contact in the workplace altogether?

2009 study of NBA players analyzed how many times players on a team touched each other. It found that touch among players in the early season tied into better performance later on by both individuals and the team. Researchers wondered if those benefits would carry into other cooperative group settings.

Just as positive compliments can reinforce desired behaviors and be good motivators, friendly touch can communicate feelings of trust and cooperation, according to an article by Fast Company.

According to an expert interviewed by Fast Company, when that touch is appropriate and wanted, it acts as social glue.

What kinds of touch are appropriate?

Typically, these are good examples:

  • Handshakes
  • High fives
  • Fist bumps
  • Back pats

Offering a handshake is a good place to start if you’re meeting someone new. As with any interaction, pay attention to how a person responds. Some people are less comfortable with physical touch than others — respect that. For some, casual hugs may be welcome. But when in doubt, just keep your hands to yourself.

What kinds of touch are inappropriate?

This one is pretty obvious. The recent articles about allegations against Harvey WeinsteinCharlie Rose and others include plenty of examples. But the point is that any unwanted or unwelcome touch is inappropriate, even if it seems innocuous to you. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to body language and social cues, and to play it safe (i.e. no touching) if someone seems uncomfortable. For example, giving a two-handed handshake with direct eye contact can give someone the heebie-jeebies.

Bosses should exercise added caution because of the power difference. Their actions often receive higher scrutiny, and employees may be concerned about their jobs if they complain.

There are problems with both inappropriate touch and sexual harassment, but they are different. Remember, sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct that would be perceived by a reasonable person as offensive. It can be one big instance or an accumulation of smaller incidents that create a hostile or offensive work environment, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Sexual harassment can come in the form of a quid pro quo or in the form of a toxic work environment, even if not directed at the person offended, according to an article by CNN.

Should I establish rules about appropriate physical contact at my company?

You definitely need a plan and procedure in place to handle reports of inappropriate touching or sexual harassment. However, it may be difficult (and open a can of worms) to list out exactly what types of physical contact are appropriate. As mentioned earlier, personal preferences and even nuances of different gestures can make someone uncomfortable.

Ultimately, you want a workplace that feels safe and welcoming without making employees constantly second-guess themselves. Educate your employees about their roles and responsibilities toward each other and about your company’s policies.

Want advice specific to your company? Contact People People today or check out our anti-harassment training here.