Should you ban physical contact at work?

Kate Palmer - HR Advice and Consultancy Director

May 29 2019

Sometimes, being overly familiar with a colleague is more than awkward—it can be sexual harassment. That’s why in the #MeToo era, some employers are banning physical contact at work. Should you do the same?

A case for no contact

You might think an outright ban on any physical contact in your workplace is a bit extreme. But there are many reasons why workers might not even want to shake hands with a colleague. For example, some autistic people experience physical pain when they’re touched. Many Muslims won’t hug or shake hands because their religion limits physical contact with the opposite sex. And other employees might just think it’s unhygienic to shake hands with or high five their colleagues. If you have an employee who’s made it clear they don’t like physical contact, and another colleague continues to hug them, you can’t ignore it. Otherwise, those unwanted hugs could land you in a tribunal for failing to act on an allegation of sexual harassment.

What’s the harm in a hug?

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. It includes any contact that violates the dignity of a worker or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. For example, a recent survey revealed that 20% of staff have received an unexpected kiss from a colleague. And it’s this type of inappropriate behaviour that has forced businesses to take a tough stance on sexual harassment. Take Ray Kelvin, the owner of £300 million brand Ted Baker. He was accused of kissing, stroking and hugging employees at work—minus their consent. Following a very public fallout and an investigation of 300 separate complaints, he resigned. Now, Ted Baker is introducing a confidential whistleblowing hotline. And they’re retraining their staff on appropriate workplace conduct—without Ray Kelvin.

So, is a ban the answer?

A recent survey reported that 68% of employees want their bosses to tell them how to greet each other. That’s why you need to cover your company’s physical contact rules in your anti-harassment policy. And if an employee reports unwanted physical contact, investigate. Otherwise, they could take you to a tribunal and you could face costly fines and damage to your business’s reputation. Want to update your anti-harassment policy to include physical contact in the workplace? Get help on 0800 028 2420

Suggested Resources