February 5, 2018
How To

How to: Handshake, or a hug? How do you decide which is appropriate in the workplace?

Nancy Marshall

We're reading every day about harassment in the workplace and #metoo. You may be wondering how to apply that to your company and workplace.

That often translates to questions about whether it's appropriate to to hug co-workers, clients, employees and or professional acquaintances. It's no wonder many of us are dusting off our handshaking skills.

If you're not thinking about these things at all, then I suggest you begin to initiate a discussion in your workplace so you have an understanding of what is acceptable in your corporate culture. I polled my friends on Facebook for advice to share with you here.

Bring back the handshake — but use it wisely

When I was younger, I thought that an extra-firm handshake was the sign of a confident woman. My late dad, who was in sales, warned me about a weak handshake. Worse, he said, are the "fold-over" handshakes that some women use or even two-handed shake.

Yet there are limits to the firm handshake. In my 20s, I shook an older woman's hand so firmly she squealed in pain. Now I am that woman.

I have shaken hands with some overzealous businesspeople who have caused me long-lasting pain. I have some arthritis in my hands and it hurts if someone shakes my hand too hard. If you are in that boat, I suggest you extend your left hand while saying that your right hand is injured and you would prefer to shake gently with your left.

The handshake may be making a comeback, but the rule with handshakes is to be firm enough, not bone-crushing.

Gauge the strength and desire of the other person to be more or less firm. Most importantly, while shaking the hand, also look at the person in the eye while smiling and saying, "it's nice to meet you," or "it's nice to see you again." The key is to be warm and sincere in your greeting. When I queried my Facebook friends on this topic, one of them said to use the same pressure you use on a doorknob to open it.

To hug or not to hug

Now, on to the issue of business etiquette in the day and age of Harvey Weinstein. Men need to be careful not to send the wrong signals or to show any kind of affection if it is unwelcomed.

My counsel is to err on the conservative side. Men should extend a hand warmly, and if the other person wants to hug, that's fine. If you do not want to hug, keep your hand extended, smiling all the time. That will send a signal that all you want is a handshake and no more physical contact.

One of my wise Facebook friends who likes to hug said she asks outright if the other would like a hug or not. This gives others the opportunity to express their preference or to opt out of a hug if they prefer not to be so close.

If you are going to initiate a hug, allow some space. My niece Rachel from California says that each party's hips need to be far apart and another friend from school says it should be a quick hug, not lingering.

At work, it's best to save the hug for a retirement or farewell party.

The key to all of this is to develop the "emotional intelligence" to know what is acceptable in any relationship and in any setting. If you are unsure, stick with the handshake and save the hugs for your family at home. Men must show more caution than women in this day and age. But women like me who are effusive and expressive must also tune in to what the other person would prefer in any given situation.

Nancy Marshall, known as The PR Maven, owns Nancy Marshall Communications. She can be reached at


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