From handshakes and hugs to an arm around the shoulder, a recent survey by TotalJobs suggests three quarters of Brits would like to see an end to physical contact at work. With a third of all participants having endured unwanted physical interaction with colleagues, it seems the British are failing in their attempts to navigate the social minefield of workplace etiquette.
Of the 2,002 people surveyed in March, aged 18-65, a quarter of those recalled being ‘trapped’ in unwelcome displays of personal affection, with one in four revealing they had avoided a colleague or client because of their behaviour. The report reveals that the majority of Brits are uncomfortable with physical contact with colleagues, highlighting a move away from traditionally acceptable forms of interaction in the workplace.
Marketing director at TotalJobs, Alexandra Sydney, said: “Whether it’s an unwanted hug, or a mistimed kiss on the cheek, our research suggests that workplace greetings could have a real impact on job satisfaction and productivity.”
At the heart of the issue is the way in which personal boundaries are defined and respected. What may seem harmless to some, can often be interpreted as inappropriate by others. Without clearly defined terms, physical interaction has the potential to stray towards the grey area of misconduct.19% of those surveyed had been on the end of an unwelcome kiss, and a similar number receiving an unwanted touch to the chest.
Commenting on the report’s findings, psychologist and body language specialist Jo Hemmings said that workplaces had become “confusing” in recent years. “The recent #MeToo movement has encouraged people to start speaking out – including in the workplace – and has led to a plethora of changes in how we engage with colleagues. “It has empowered people – both male and female – to speak out about abuse or discomfort with less fear of repercussions.”
According to the Telegraph (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/04/23/hugging-kissing-work-should-banned-employees-say-survey-reveals/), the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have drawn attention to misconduct in the workplace in crucial ways, not least in empowering women to reject the kind of behaviour which has been ingrained in the workplace for decades. On the back of these movements have been many high-profile instances where powerful men have, perhaps unwittingly, abused their position of power and trust, such as the forced resignation of Ray Kelvin of Ted Baker, after allegations of inappropriate behaviour. The survey found a total of 45% of workers in their 40s and 50s prefer handshakes, but 41% of those in their 20s favour no physical contact at all. The research seems to suggest we are redefining what is acceptable and what is not.
“It’s clearly a highly complex, even embarrassing subject and we all have an opinion on what is right and what is wrong”, said Jo Hemmings. “It is important for companies to step up and offer much-needed guidance for staff around the rules of engagement in the workplace.”
As pointed out in the Express (https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1118460/hugging-banned-offices-new-poll-totaljobs-employee-survey), the majority of the people surveyed said that more explicit guidelines on what is and isn’t appropriate would help them feel more comfortable in the office. If the boundaries need to be so radically redrawn to make staff feel comfortable, then perhaps bans on physical contact should be considered. But preferable to a ban would be wider societal change, where boundaries are respected even before it is made compulsory by office policy.