SBM Articles


Personal Touch in the Workplace

by Kathy Cooperman

Just when we thought the “Me Too” movement had reached its peak, we see more women expressing their discomfort with being touched at work. Former Vice President Joe Biden has voiced his newfound awareness of the age-old issue in the workplace. He explains that it was never his intention to make anyone uncomfortable. This continues to be the big debate: intent versus impact. Leaders must be especially vigilant about making everyone aware of the sensitive workplace issue.

Personal Space
Think of personal space as an invisible bubble around your body. There are various space zones that we instinctively protect.

How much closeness is OK at work? While it varies by culture, in the U.S. the norm is to abide by the following unspoken guidelines:

* Intimate distance.
This is anywhere from touching another person’s body to within 18 inches of their body. This is typically reserved for the closest of relationships (hugging, touching, whispering, etc.)

* Personal distance. This is the space between 18 inches and 3 to 4 feet. It’s normally the space in which we communicate with close friends and family.

* Social distance. This is typically 4 to 12 feet away from the other person. This is the area where you sit across from someone at a desk or conference table, where most business transactions take place.

* Public distance. This is 12 feet or more from another person. An example is when you’re delivering a presentation to a group.

For the latest neuroscience behind how the brain protects our personal space see National Geographic’s “You Need Your Personal Space: Here’s the Science Why.”

Are you a hugger?
In organizations across the country, I notice how people greet one another. Some offer a business-like handshake. Others immediately reach out for a hug — especially with those they’ve met before. Others offer only a nod. Many leaders say they’re afraid to even tap someone on the shoulder for fear of being accused falsely of harassing someone.

What’s the answer?
Know your audience! Never assume the other person welcomes an invasion of their personal space (intimate distance). In the most recent case of Joe Biden, women complained about him touching their shoulders and backs, “sniffing” their hair, etc. They were quick to add that they didn’t believe the touching was of a sexual nature, but it still made them uncomfortable.

When in doubt, err on the side of caution. You might even ask, “Is it OK if I give you a hug?” This could avoid an embarrassing situation for you or the other person. To be completely safe, save your hugs and touches for only your closest friends and family. Remember, if you’re in a position of power (supervisor, manager, leader, etc.), it’s even more important to respect personal boundaries.

Perhaps it’s appropriate to lead a discussion with your team about the importance of respecting personal space at work. Allow people to express their points of view and be sure to update everyone about your organization’s policy.

Kathy Cooperman, an executive coach and leadership expert, is the president and founder of KC Leadership Consulting LLC. For more information, contact her at, or 720.542.3324.

Submitted 23 days ago
Categories: categoryLeader Acceleration
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