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Hugging Etiquette at Work: 10 Do’s and Don’ts

Hugging friends is one thing, but hugging colleagues is a whole different ball game. Here’s what you need to know about hugging etiquette at work.
by Vanessa Gibbs | Oct 14 2022

You might hug a friend when you greet them, when they’re sad, or when they share some good news with you. But when any of those things happen in the office, hugging is often not the way to go. 

According to a survey from hiring platform Total Jobs, 76% want workplace physical contact to be reduced, and 15% want a total ban on hugging.

Hugging at work doesn’t always go to plan: 25% have been trapped in an unwanted hug, 15% got an unwanted chest touch after one person went for a handshake and the other person went for a hug, and, hilariously, 12% have had an accidental headbutt. 

And most workers don’t actually like hugs at all at work. Only 18% of workers in their 20s prefer hug workplace greetings over handshakes or no physical contact, while just 5% of workers in their 40s and 50s prefer hugs.

So, it’s clear that hugging a friend is very different from hugging a colleague, let alone your boss, a subordinate, or a client. But it’s not as straightforward as saying never hug at work. 

Below, we’ll dive into hugging etiquette and 10 do’s and don’ts to help you get it right. 

10 Do’s and Don’ts of Hugging Etiquette at Work 

1. Don’t Hug if in Doubt 

If you’re thinking about hugging a colleague, but you’re worried about how they might react, err on the side of caution and don’t hug them. 

Go for a high five or fist bump, or simply use your words. There are plenty of ways you can greet, congratulate, or support someone, without running the risk of an awkward or unwanted hug. 

2. Don’t Hug a Subordinate 

You may get on with your direct reports well, and may even go for after-work drinks with them, and discuss weekend plans, personal lives, and problems. But you still need to be wary of hugging them. 

Even if you count them as a friend, you’re still their boss at the end of the day, and hugging a subordinate can get complicated. You don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable, mistake a platonic hug for sexual harassment, or feel they have to hug you back, despite not wanting to. 

Just like above, it’s better to keep it to high fives, fist bumps, and friendly words over wrapping your arms around them. 

3. Don’t Hug a Client 

You might be noticing a theme here, but we promise we’ll get onto who you can hug soon. But first, resist the urge to hug a client, even if you’ve just got great results on a project or haven’t seen them in ages. 

Hugging can come across as unprofessional and you’re representing your company here. Stick to handshakes and warm words if you want to convey how much you value the (working) relationship. 

4. Do Reciprocate a Hug (if You’re Comfortable with it) 

If you’re a hugger and a colleague goes in for a friendly hello hug, don’t feel the need to push them away. If you’re comfortable with the hug, hug back! 

Just be sure to keep it short and platonic, of course. 

5. Do Reciprocate However Another Person Greets You 

Even if you love a tight embrace, if a colleague puts out their hand for a handshake, respect this greeting. The same goes for anyone who makes it clear they prefer different types of greetings. 

6. Do Apologize if You Give an Unwanted Hug  

If you go in for what you think is a friendly hug, but find the other person pulls away or hugs you back, but is clearly uncomfortable, don’t panic, but don’t ignore the situation either. 

Usually, a quick apology can make it clear nothing was meant by your hug, and you can strive to not be so liberal with your hugs next time. 

7. Do Speak Up if You Don’t Want to be Hugged 

It can feel awkward, especially if it’s your boss or a senior colleague, but don’t let this stop you from speaking up if someone goes in for an unwanted hug. 

If you anticipate a hug, go in for a different kind of greeting before they get the chance to reach out their arms. Stick your hand out for a handshake or fist bump, for example. 

If someone has already started initiating the hug, it’s time to say something. The person who is hugging you may not even realize you don’t want it, and would be mortified to learn you were uncomfortable.

A quick, light-hearted yet firm comment should be enough to put an end to it. When someone reaches in say something like: 

  • “I’m not much of a hugger, high five instead?” 
  • “I don’t even hug my friends, but I’ll fist bump to closing this deal.” 
  • “I don’t do hugs, but it’s so great to see you. How have you been?”

If someone continues to try and hug you, then it’s a whole different story. Speak to human resources. 

8. Do Hug Close Colleagues (with Caution)

If you’re very close with a colleague, meet up with them outside of work, share personal problems, and know details about their life, you’re probably safe to go in for a friendly hug. But even then, use caution.

You’re still colleagues, and you never know how they’ll feel about a hug, especially if you’re going in for one at work. 

Stay professional in the office, and use your best judgment in other cases.  

9. Do Keep Hugs to a Minimum 

Even if your colleagues are comfortable with hugging you, that doesn’t mean you should hug them all the time. Keep hugs to special occasions only: think promotions, landing a big client, or seeing someone after a long time. 

While the occasional hello or goodbye hug is okay, too, you don’t want to hug everyone every time you enter and leave the office. 

10. Do Ask Permission to Hug 

If you really want to hug someone, and you’re not sure how they’ll react, and we really can’t convince you to opt for a high five or handshake instead, just ask if it’s okay to hug. 

Say something like :

  • “Are you a hugger or a high fiver?” 
  • “I’m a hugger, is it okay if we hug?”

It does sound awkward and some people may not feel comfortable saying no, even if they don’t want to hug — hence why we recommend skipping the hug altogether if you’re in doubt. But at least asking permission gives the other person a chance to reject your embrace. 

What to Do Instead of Hugging at Work

If you’re a hugger in your personal life, you might find it hard to not pull colleagues into a close embrace in the office. But not everyone will be as comfortable with hugs as you are. 

Here’s what you can do instead: 

  • Use your words to celebrate, support, or greet — the safest choice.
  • High five
  • Fist bump
  • Handshake — the professional choice. 
  • A pat on the back — be careful with this one, this can still make people feel uncomfortable if the physical contact is unwanted.

What to Do if You Accidentally Hug a Coworker 

Whether you were celebrating landing a new client or cheerily saying goodbye after a post-work drink, it’s easy to accidentally go in for a hug, especially with a close coworker. Here’s what to do:

1. Don’t Panic 

Firstly, don’t panic. If they reciprocated the hug, and it was short and friendly, everything may be fine. Don’t get flustered or overly panicked by the hug, this will only make things worse. You never know, your colleague may be a hugger, too!

2. Apologize

If the other person seemed uncomfortable with the hug, pull back and say you’re sorry.  

Keep things light-hearted by saying something like: 

  • “I’m so sorry, I’m just so happy we landed this client after months of hard work. I hope that wasn’t awkward, but please don’t worry, there’ll be no more hugs from me. Anyway…let’s start brainstorming how to kick off the project.” 
  • “My bad, I didn’t mean to hug you, I’m just so thrilled to be promoted. I promise you’ll get nothing but professionalism from me from here on out.” 

3. Don’t Hug Them Again

This should go without saying, but if someone feels uncomfortable when you hug them, make sure to not hug them again in the future. 

A single accidental awkward hug is one thing, but repeatedly hugging someone who doesn’t want to be hugged is harassment, even if you don’t intend it to be this way. Respect other people’s non-hugging boundaries, and refrain from any embraces at work. 

That’s our guide to hugging at work. Remember if in doubt, don’t hug. Avoid hugging clients and subordinates, and speak up if you don’t want to be hugged. 


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