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Physical contact at work -- what are the boundaries?

By Rachel Zupek,
  • Make sure you really know your co-worker before engaging in any physical contact
  • Touching done when angry can be seen as physically threatening
  • Think about hygiene before shaking hands, and avoid it if you risk passing germs

( -- When most people think about physical contact with a co-worker, their first thought is about sexual harassment.

While most workers know the rules about inappropriate or offensive touching in the workplace, many people don't think twice about other forms of physical contact with co-workers like handshakes or pats on the back.

"The truth is that workers have very different levels of tolerance for physical contact of any type," says Amy Epstein Feldman, general counsel of the Judge Group Inc., a Pennsylvania-based consulting and staffing firm, and author of "So Sue Me, Jackass!"

"In fact, because a person's individual sensitivities and need for personal space varies so widely, inappropriate touching -- from a happy slap on the back to a welcoming kiss on the cheek to an angry pointed finger in someone's chest -- are all the subject of complaints to management."

Why should you care? Aside from the fact that you don't want to find yourself unexpectedly slapped with a sexual harassment suit, Feldman says no one wants to be typed as "creepy Bob from accounting" or "desperate Mary" who has to hug everyone who comes through the door.

Read on to learn more about what is and isn't appropriate in terms of physical contact at work.

Inappropriate versus appropriate

Obviously, certain gestures in the workplace are unmistakably offensive or sexual, but many people don't think about other forms of physical contact that might be uncomfortable for others. People do something jokingly, for example, like reaching out and giving a "funny" slap on the behind, without thinking twice, Feldman says.

"There are forms of touching that are rarely considered offensive that can be misconstrued. A boss who pokes his subordinates to illustrate a point is seen as a bully, but the physical contact plays into the monstrous image. A pat on the back or the shoulder, [or] a two-handed handshake while looking into someone's eyes, can give a co-worker the creeps," Feldman says. "The person who is initiating the contact in no way means to be offensive, but the person being touched is often highly offended. When faced with a complaint, it seems obvious in retrospect that slapping someone's behind was a bad idea."

So how does "inappropriate touching" differ from sexual harassment? Feldman says that sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace and that it comes in two forms: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. In quid pro quo, a supervisor bases your job duties on your consent to sexual acts, whereas in a hostile work environment, the workplace is permeated with jokes, gestures, pictures or offensive touching. It becomes a hostile and abusive work environment, even if the conduct is not directed at the person who is offended.

"While inappropriate touching can be a component of either type of sexual harassment, you don't have to be inappropriately touched to be sexually harassed, nor have you necessarily faced sexual harassment just because you've faced inappropriate touching," Feldman says.

What should I do?

If you're dealing with a co-worker whose physical contact with you is bothersome, Feldman suggests being direct without being confrontational. Try a joke ("In my culture that means we're married. Don't make me take you home to meet Mama!") or a nonconfrontational statement ("I'm not a big hugger because it makes me uncomfortable"). If the offender still doesn't get it, Feldman suggests bringing it to the attention of human resources or management.

Here are five boundaries Feldman says to remember the next time you want to high-five or hug your co-worker:

1. Hands off

"It seems too obvious to say, but it's a lesson some still need to learn: The No. 1 rule is to keep your hands off your own or anyone else's private parts in an office. Even as a joke; even 'man-to-man.' You'd be surprised how many people think it's hilarious to reach out and grab someone. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER do that."

2. Know your audience

"Any touching -- even a pat on the back -- before you know someone is too personal for strangers. So make sure that you really know your co-worker before engaging in any physical contact, even a high five."

3. Think about hygiene

"Don't ever shake hands with someone in the bathroom before you've washed your hands. Don't cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and then shake someone's hand. They don't know how to handle it. And remember that in the swine flu frenzy, a warm smile and a nice greeting ('I'm so glad to see you!') without touching might serve you better in the long run."

4. Remember than not all offensive touching is sexual -- sometimes it's just hostile

"Bullies don't just exist on the playground. Poking someone in the chest while making an angry point, grabbing someone's arm or any other touching done when angry can lead to dismissal if your action is seen as physically threatening."

5. Be sensitive to others' sensitivities toward touching

"Do they lean in when you go to kiss their cheek or do they grimace and move backward? Do they initiate pats on the back or is it only one-sided? You don't need people to avoid you in the hallway because they fear the dreaded 'man hug' you give."