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When I speak on the topic of “business etiquette,” a frequently asked question by audience members is, “Is it okay to hug a client or coworker?”

Well, it depends…

First, always assume that a handshake is the most professional greeting. There is a line of professionalism and a line of respect that shouldn’t be crossed. A handshake doesn’t cross the line.

Secondly, never assume that someone is a hugger. To some, a hug is comfortable, but to others it’s an invasion of their personal space and can create awkwardness. Great care should be exercised to respect personal and professional boundaries.

Here are several guidelines to consider when hugging versus handshaking may be a gray area.

  1. Consider the culture of your workplace. The practice of hugging will vary within each office setting. If it’s a small office of mostly women, then hugs are more acceptable. In a larger corporate office, a hug could be misinterpreted and send the wrong signal. In a 2012 NBC News.com poll, one-third of nearly 20,000 people who took the poll said they hug at work.
  2. When is a hug not okay? Never on a first meeting with a new client or coworker. And, generally not with a person of the opposite sex. This can create an awkward relationship and breaches the line of professionalism and respect, and could possibly even border on sexual harassment.
  3. When is a hug okay?
  • It’s okay when you know the client well and the client initiates it. For example, I’ve had female insurance agents and female attorneys tell me they are on a hugging basis with a couple of their female clients who are like friends to them, but…the client has always initiated the hug.
  • A hug with someone of the opposite sex is okay if you already know the person well, they initiate it, and you have previously established a mutually respectful professional relationship. For example, several of the men from my husband’s office will often hug me if we see each other at a business dinner. These are professional men who early on established a professional relationship with me; therefore the hug is not misinterpreted.
  • At an industry conference, a hug can be an appropriate greeting with a colleague you run into and haven’t seen since last year’s conference.
  • A hug is also appropriate with a client or coworker who is going through a difficult time, such as a death in the family.
  • And what do you say to a hugger if you’re not a hugger? Just extend your hand, and simply say “Sorry, I’m just not a hugger.”

If in doubt, an arms-off policy is best. A handshake won’t invade anyone’s personal space, will never get you a harassment complaint…and always shows respect and professionalism.