Survey finds over 75% of employees want physical contact banned at work

Have you fallen victim to an awkward hug in the workplace? Been part of a handshake that lingered a little too long? In the #MeToo era, navigating the difficult terrain of co-worker greetings and interactions can be a "minefield," a recent survey suggests.

Totaljobs, a hiring platform in the U.K., asked employees about their interactions and professional conduct in the workplace and found that a majority of people want do away with physical contact in the office.

Approximately 76 percent of those surveyed would support ending physical contact at work, while one third of employees revealed they had experienced an "awkward" greeting from colleagues.

Some want an outright ban on certain workplace interactions, including 27 percent who would like to end the workplace cheek or air kiss and 15 percent who want hugs at work to be a thing of the past.

One in four of the 2,002 adults surveyed have even actively avoided "awkward" colleagues or clients due to their choice of greeting, the report states.

"With one in four people telling us that they avoid meeting a peer or a client due to the greeting alone, it's clear that boundaries need to be set in the workplace which promote a comfortable working environment and doesn't impede on the working day. It stands to reason that feeling comfortable at work is closely aligned to feeling happy," Alexandra Sydney, marketing director for Totaljobs, said.

All participants in the survey were between the ages of 18 and 65. Nearly half of workers in their 40s and 50s said they prefer handshakes, compared to only 35 percent of those in their 20s.

The survey found that hugs were universally unpopular across all ages.

"The recent #MeToo movement has encouraged people to start speaking out - including in the workplace - and has led to a plethora of changes in how we engage with colleagues," said Jo Hemmings, a psychologist and body language expert. "It has empowered people - both male and female - to speak out about abuse or discomfort with less fear of repercussions."

Former Vice President Joe Biden recently had a series of misconduct allegations leveled against him and promised to "be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future."

"Social norms are changing. I understand that, and I've heard what these women are saying," the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate tweeted last month. "Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That's my responsibility and I will meet it."

As far as differences between men and women, a quarter of men surveyed said they consciously change their greeting with women out of fear of their interaction being perceived as sexual harassment.

Half of women said they prefer no physical interaction when it comes to greeting colleagues of either sex.

Many of the employees surveyed said they have experienced an embarrassing "greeting clash" in the workplace. One in four said they had been trapped in an unwanted hug, and one in five have been on the receiving end of an unexpected kiss.

One in seven, or approximately 15 percent of professionals surveyed, have received an unwanted chest touch after one person went in for a handshake, and the other a hug.

"It's clearly a highly complex, embarrassing, even humiliating subject and we all have an opinion on what is right and what is wrong," Hemmings said. "So, in an age where workers worry they may be called out by HR following a consensual hug with a colleague or a supportive hand on the shoulder, it is important for companies to step up and offer much-needed guidance for staff around the rules of engagement in the workplace."

As far as how clearly defined those rules of engagement are could depend on the company.

Some employers could even ban handshakes to help with confusion about what's acceptable at work and to possibly avoid costly claims of sexual harassment, according to Metro.

"Some employers may put a complete ban on physical contact. Whether that's going too far or not is a question I would pose, because it's contextual," Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at HR consultancy Peninsula, told the website.

"Does shaking someone's hand go too far? They may just say 'no contact at all' because there's no grey area. It makes it simple, but it takes away affection which in some ways is a sad thing."

Palmer told the website that the #MeToo movement has prompted some companies to implement more "black and white" policies and to think harder on how to prevent sexual harassment claims.

She added that a handshake is "probably safe" unless an employer says otherwise.

"If there's a rule, follow it," she said.

Related: How to make work more 'human' with workplace strategist & author Erica Keswin

This story was reported from Los Angeles.