Three quarters of workers want physical contact banned in the workplace

Workers have spoken. When it comes to workplace interactions, we are a nation uncomfortable with up close contact – from hugs to extended eye contact – and we certainly don’t want to be negotiating the minefield of ‘one cheek kiss or two’.

In fact, new research has found that three quarters of us (76 per cent) want physical contact reduced, whilst 42 per cent go further and call for an outright ban on some interactions, from the workplace kiss (27 per cent) to wishing hugs were a thing of the past (15 per cent)*.

Cringeworthy clashes

The research reveals one in three (30 per cent) workers experience an awkward greeting at work at least once a month, with those in their 20s enduring the most. One in five surveyed (22 per cent) have had a ‘greeting clash’ in the workplace with the most embarrassing of those including:

  • A quarter have been trapped in an unwanted hug (25 per cent)
  • One in five (19 per cent) have been on the receiving end of an unexpected kiss
  • One in seven (15 per cent) have received an unwanted chest touch, after one has opted for a handshake, the other a hug
  • One in eight (13 per cent) have had an accidental kiss on the mouth thanks to ill-timed air kisses
  • Another one in eight (12per cent) have had an accidental headbutt

In fact, some are so concerned with how they are interacted with in the workplace that a quarter (25 per cent) actively avoid awkward colleagues or clients.

Psychologist and leading body language expert, Jo Hemmings shares advice on embarrassing encounters at work:

Interactions in the workplace have become a confusing and difficult terrain in recent years. Navigating what ostensibly seems like a simple ‘hello,’ is now a minefield for both initiator and recipient so no wonder two thirds of us want clear guidelines on interactions at work from awkward hugs to accident nose bumps.

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.

It’s clearly a highly complex, embarrassing, even humiliating subject and we all have an opinion on what is right and what is wrong. So, in an age where workers worry they may be called out by HR following a consensual hug with a colleague or a supportive hand on the shoulder, it is important for companies to step up and offer much-needed guidance for staff around the rules of engagement in the workplace.

Rules of engagement

The nations’ preferred choice of workplace greeting is a firm handshake – with two seconds or less of direct eye contact to leave us truly in our comfort zone. Interestingly, whilst nearly half (45 per cent) of workers in their 40s and 50s prefer handshakes, only 35 per cent of those in their 20s favour them with two-fifths (41per cent) preferring no physical contact when greeting colleagues or clients. Whilst hugs are universally unpopular across ages, 18 per cent of workers in their 20s claim to prefer a hug as their workplace greeting of choice, in contrast to only 5 per cent of workers in their 40s and 50s. Kisses are also deemed a total no-no with over a quarter (27 per cent) of those surveyed wanting them banned.

Alexandra Sydney, Marketing Director at Totaljobs, said,

Whether it’s an unwanted hug, or a mistimed kiss on the cheek, our research suggests that workplace greetings have the potential to stray beyond awkward and could have a real impact on job satisfaction and productivity.

With one in four people telling us that they avoid meeting a peer or a client due to the greeting alone, it’s clear that boundaries need to be set in the workplace which promote a comfortable working environment and doesn’t impede on the working day. It stands to reason that feeling comfortable at work is closely aligned to feeling happy.

This is why more than two thirds of workers are calling for clearer guidelines on the amount of contact, and greetings used in the workplace. Having guidelines which facilitate open, honest conversations between workers about physical contact offers employers the chance to have their team focused on the job at hand – rather than whether they’re shaking hands at their next meeting.

Preferred greetings

Two-fifths (41per cent) of men who greet people differently based on gender do so for fear of making the other person feel uncomfortable. An uncomfortable quarter (28 per cent) who consciously change their greeting with women do so for fear of their interaction being perceived as sexual harassment. Half of women prefer no physical interaction when it comes to greeting colleagues of either sex – male (51 per cent) and female (53 per cent).

British workers call for clear workplace guidelines

Despite having concerns over workplace behaviours, workers are unsure what is expected of them when interacting with clients and colleagues. Two-thirds (68 per cent) think workplaces should have clear guidelines on what is considered an appropriate greeting at work to avoid causing offence. Shockingly, only one in seven (15 per cent) have received any sort of guidance from their employer in the last year. These situations shouldn’t be taken lightly, with a third (33 per cent) claiming that their wellbeing has been affected following an awkward greeting. Fifteen per cent said that replaying awkward or uncomfortable interactions in their head has negatively impacted their productivity, losing up to as much as a valuable hour of the working day.

*Research by TotalJobs

Interested in solving disputes in the workplace? We recommend the Grievance Investigation Skills training day.

Aphrodite is a creative writer and editor specialising in publishing and communications. She is passionate about undertaking projects in diverse sectors. She has written and edited copy for media as varied as social enterprise, art, fashion and education. She is at her most happy owning a project from its very conception, focusing on the client and project research in the first instance, and working closely with CEOs and Directors throughout the consultation process. Much of her work has focused on rebranding; messaging and tone of voice is one of her expertise, as is a distinctively unique writing style in my most of her creative projects. Her work is always driven by the versatility of language to galvanise image and to change perception, as it is by inspiring and being inspired by the wondrous diversity of people with whom paths she crosses cross!

Aphrodite has had a variety of high profile industry clients as a freelancer, and previously worked for a number of years as an Editor and Journalist for

Aphrodite is also a professional painter.