By Rachel Feintzeig
Felicia Flewelling starts her workday with coffee, a quick
Facebook check and a whirling embrace with her boss.
"You go in for like a regular hug and then you just spin in a
circle," the 31-year-old receptionist says of her morning ritual
with the chief executive of her company, Dovico Software Inc. "It
makes it a lot easier to come into work."
Handshakes have given way to bear hugs, back pats and lingering
embraces in some corners of the corporate world. At luxury clothing
brand Ted Baker PLC, TurboTax maker Intuit Inc. and Wheels &
Deals Ltd. (called "Canada's Huggable Car Dealer"), top bosses
greet employees, customers and other business associates with open
Huggers say their touchy-feely approach breeds teamwork, trust
and better business results. Huggees don't always agree. There are
legal and physical risks to consider, not to mention the
awkwardness of being embraced by the person who does your
The share of advertising and marketing executives who described
co-worker hugging as common shot up 24 percentage points from five
years earlier, according to a 2016 survey by Creative Group, a
staffing agency owned by Robert Half International Inc. Some
leaders say workplace hugging is part of a broader trend as offices
become more casual and the lines between life and work blur.
While interviewing at Dovico in February, Sam Lavoie, a
23-year-old software developer, moved in for a handshake only to
find himself in the arms of the Canadian software company's CEO,
"I was like, 'Oh, OK, this is happening,'" Mr. Lavoie says. "It
wasn't like I had a job or anything. It was two strangers just
Mr. Lavoie got the job, and quickly informed colleagues of his
aversion to embraces.
"I'm an open, self-admitted, nonhugger," he says. "Flat out.
Never been, never will be."
Co-workers have respected his wishes, he says, though he and
Dovico's nonhuggers comprise a small minority. Mr. Doucet says
those employees get a handshake, and no hard feelings. "You don't
lose your job if you don't hug."
Mr. Doucet sometimes meets resistance from outsiders, too. At a
business conference a few years ago, the CEO met a local government
official who was greeting people by touching elbows, due to a cold.
Undeterred, Mr. Doucet wrapped his arms around the man.
"He wanted to let go, but I wouldn't," he says. A security guard
eventually came over to intervene, according to Mr. Doucet.
At 5 feet 6 inches tall, Sheldon Yellen occasionally has to get
creative to get up close and personal with his 7,400 employees at
Belfor Property Restoration, of Birmingham, Mich. He says he jumps
on a chair to hug a company manager in the Netherlands who tops 7
feet. Mr. Yellen, the CEO, says a Belfor worker once hugged him so
hard he broke three of his ribs, sending him to the hospital.
The injury hasn't slowed Mr. Yellen, who estimates he gives
hundreds of hugs a week. Embraces ease tensions during tough
negotiations, he says, and enable trusting colleagues to move fast
on projects at the disaster-recovery company.
Actions like hugging or fetching coffee for a colleague can show
"companionate love" at work, according to Sigal Barsade, a
management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton
School. Her research finds that affectionate and caring
organizations have less burnout and absenteeism and higher levels
of employee satisfaction.
"We don't just hug for the sake of hugging," Ted Baker CEO Ray
Kelvin says. He adopted the practice 12 years ago, when bad
arthritis made handshakes painful.
A circle around his desk at the company's London headquarters is
labeled "hug zone"; about five times a day someone will stand
within its confines and receive a hearty embrace, he says.
The circle is about 10 feet in diameter, "enough for two people
to get in it, sometimes three if you feel like having a group hug,"
Mr. Kelvin says.
Employees marking anniversaries at Partners + Napier, a
Rochester, N.Y., advertising agency, celebrate with hugs from
company leaders at a monthly staff meeting. In March, one worker
ran around the room to evade a hug, chased by the company's
Another nonhugger, rather than giving chase, just kept her arms
glued to her side. "She didn't really hug back," says Lisa
Baumgartner, a senior account executive at the firm who attended
Through a spokesman, the two nonhugging employees declined to be
interviewed for this article.
Bill Campbell, an executive famed for coaching Silicon Valley
leaders like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, often gave warm hugs. A
former chairman of Intuit's board, Mr. Campbell died last year.
Current Intuit CEO Brad Smith has embraced many of Mr. Campbell's
leadership traits. During a recent meeting, Mr. Smith hugged a
reporter twice in 30 minutes.
"Greeting people with hugs, whether it is a fellow employee,
another CEO, or someone I'm meeting for the first time, is not
uncommon for me," he said in a statement.
Alison Green, the author of workplace advice blog Ask a Manager,
says she has fielded dozens of questions from employees concerned
about office hugging. Many nonhuggers endure embraces silently, not
wanting to be rude, "but they're secretly thinking, 'Ugh, I don't
want to be part of this hug,' " she says.
Huggers "seem to feel they're really good at judging when
someone wants a hug, but based on what the nonhuggers are saying,
they're wrong about that," she says.
Ms. Baumgartner, the advertising-account executive, didn't grow
up as a hugger; the first time she hugged her older brother was at
her high-school graduation, she recalls. These days, she happily
embraces female colleagues in the breakroom and hugs her supervisor
after receiving positive feedback. With members of her team,
however, she gives high-fives, and she waits for clients to make
the first move.
Aaron Goldstein, a partner with law firm Dorsey & Whitney
LLP's labor and employment group, advises against initiating hugs
in the workplace, especially after a recent court decision siding
with a plaintiff who complained that a supervisor doled out more
than 100 unwelcome hugs over 12 years. A San Francisco appeals
court in February reversed an initial lower court decision in favor
of the defendant, a sheriff, and the case is set to go to trial in
During trainings on workplace harassment, Mr. Goldstein takes
managers through his taxonomy of hugging. He's dubbed one the HR
hug, "the go-to-hug for HR professionals looking not to offend
anyone," a one-armed sideways embrace; another the FFBB,
"full-frontal but brief." "If it lasts for more than a second it's
weird," he adds.
Recently, he added another physical workplace interaction to his
list of potentially fraught behaviors, after an audience member
caressed his palm during a training session.
"I felt like I needed a long shower afterwards," he says. "Next
time someone says it was just a handshake, get the details."
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 16, 2017 18:23 ET (22:23 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.