An Important Question to Embrace
On a daily basis, the coaches in our firm grapple with a question that is not likely addressed at Harvard Business School, unless I'm overlooking in the course catalogue something called Physical Boundaries in Contemporary Corporate Culture.
When is it appropriate to hug a client, either male or female? I'm not talking about an intimate embrace but rather a respectful, no-torso-touching hug. Sometimes? Never?
Making the wrong call in a professional setting can be a career killer. Just ask one-time CBS Morning News anchor Phyllis George, a former Miss America and queen of the most awkward moment in TV news history. The incident happened 30-plus years ago, but only now are the sounds of groans from her bosses in the control room fading.
George was interviewing an accused rapist alongside the woman who admitted the attack never happened after he had served six years for the crime he didn't commit. Thinking she would create a memorable moment of touching reconciliation, George invited the two to hug live on TV. When they refused, the word "awkward" had a new definition.
Strangely, it is only now, after 15 years of running a business, that I'm beginning to develop a full appreciation for how complex and nuanced this question truly is in the workplace. You may be thinking that you can never go wrong playing it safe by initiating a handshake 100 percent of the time. But there's something equally awkward about extending your hand to a client who is fully expecting to be hugged.
That brand of awkwardness comes from the expression on their face that says, "Why are you acting so standoffish? Aren't we a beloved client with whom you have a special relationship? Don't we have SHS: Special Hugging Status?"
On the surface, you might be inclined to think that the handshake/hug quandary is solely dictated by what industry your client is in. Let's face it -- you're probably much less likely to physically embrace a CPA specializing in corporate governance than you are a Millennial PR account exec repping a beauty brand. That's because lip gloss is just so much more touchy-feely than Dodd-Frank.
Oh, but if only it were as easy as considering just one factor I've been intrigued by this phenomenon for some time now and lately I've been analyzing it. My conclusion? In addition to taking into account the cultural norms of both parties, there are four factors that go into this all-important client relationship decision:
1. The Client's Industry
Typically clients who are in the arts (music, publishing, TV) are big huggers. People in tech also exude a physical warmth (wouldn't you be game for a little human contact if you spent most of your day hunched over a laptop coding?) PR professionals rarely shy away from a mild embrace either, but theirs are usually accompanied by an air kiss.
As you might suspect, clients in law firms, big investment banks and bureaucratic global companies tend to refrain from this kind of quasi intimacy. A firm, professional handshake is standard operating procedure.
And HR professionals? Forget it! Hugs are probably listed in the "inappropriate contact" chapter of the corporate conduct handbook, so keep your hands to yourself.
2. The Length of the Relationship
When you're fortunate enough to work with a particular client for a number of years, there's a certain level of mutual trust and professional admiration that develops. I find when you've been in the trenches together a few times (marathon collaborations that extend well into the night to meet a crucial deadline) you almost can't help but hug one another the next time you meet. It's a congratulatory hug that comes from a feeling of accomplishment, kind of like professional hockey players after scoring a goal.
3. The Client's Sense of Personal Space
This can be the trickiest one because it's essentially guesswork. I have one client with whom I have a very warm and casual rapport. We laugh a lot when we work together -- her colleagues at the same company are big into hugging whenever we work together, so all things seem equal. After collaborating for about a year, I figured factor #1 and factor #2 were satisfied, so I initiated a hug hello one day. Wrong decision! I think her hand that she extended for a handshake ended up poking me in the ribs. Oh well. Lesson learned.
4. The Approach
Often times when the aforementioned factors provide you with a mixed bag of criteria, how you react ends up being a game-time decision. There's that split second during which the other person approaches you upon initial greeting when they either slow up and stop at what would be an extended arms-length distance, or they blow past that point and come closer. That's usually the "hugging moment of truth." If you hold back slightly until the client commits to their greeting distance, then you can follow their lead and end up making the right call.
I hope these tips help you navigate this unusual area of professional conduct. And if you want to explore the intricacies of it more deeply, perhaps keep an eye on the course catalogue for the Harvard Business School. Who knows? Someday they may just offer a course on the topic.