In the era of #MeToo, workplaces are reconsidering physical-touch boundaries for employees, but they may go too far.
Could the most basic office touch, the handshake, one day (soon) disappear from some workplaces? As employers grapple with the new norms on workplace interactions between men and women as well as try to avoid costly sexual harassment lawsuits, the handshake may become collateral damage.
Meant as a hello and goodbye greeting, a way to introduce yourself, sealing a deal, or a gesture of congratulations, handshakes had been one of the safest forms of contact in the workplace – until now.
We’ve seen the chilling effect of #MeToo on American workplaces. Men in leadership opt to forgo closed-door meetings, work travel, and after-hours functions with younger, female colleagues out of fear that they may become the target of a career-ending allegation.
This is exactly what women do not need, especially in male-dominated fields where they are trying to advance.
Unfortunately, this backlash is an unintended consequence triggered by a movement that meant to expose wrongdoing and give victims a voice.
Sexual harassment and assault in the workplace are illegal and wrong. They must not be tolerated. However, the lines between appropriate or welcomed behavior have been distorted to elevate innocuous situations to a higher level of wrongdoing in order to exaggerate the level of victimhood among women.
That does a disservice to real victims of sexual violence and leads to workplace dynamics that are not healthy or helpful for women.
Just look at new survey results from across the Pond.
A British survey of 2,000 adults revealed that workers actually want greater restrictions on physical touch – in some cases ending it altogether:
76% want physical contact reduced
42% want a ban on some interactions – workplace kiss (27%) and hugs (15%).
One in five surveyed had an embarrassing greeting “clash” and that may fuel the desire for HR to control touching in the office:
25% were trapped in an unwanted hug
19% received an unexpected kiss
15% received an unwanted chest touch that was meant to be a handshake or hug
13% had an accidental kiss on the mouth
While the incidents weren’t widespread, they have occurred enough to alter workers’ behaviors:
25% have actively avoided a colleague or client due to their greeting style
41% of men who greet people differently based on gender do so for fear of making the other person feel uncomfortable
28% 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%) and female (53%).
Interestingly, younger workers are increasingly more hostile to physical touch including handshakes. Only a third (35%) of those in their 20s favor handshakes compared to nearly half (45%) of workers in their 40s and 50s. Some 41% of young people prefer no physical contact when greeting colleagues or clients at all.
What’s missing from this is survey are questions about intent. Did their colleague intend to touch them inappropriately? Are these interactions repeated by the same person? Was a repeat offender called out or brought to HR?
As employers figure out how to respond to #MeToo, they should be careful about adopting blanket bans. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t solve all problems but can trigger other ones.