CREDIT: SCRUBS TV STILL
By: Rhymer Rigby/UK Telegraph
Yesterday, The Faculty of Dental Surgery, an influential group of dentists, suggested that companies should tackle “cake culture” at work because it contributes to obesity and poor health.
This is long overdue. In the past few years Britain has gone cake mad and this extends to the workplace. Where once we might have seen office cake a couple of time a year, cakes are now brought in to celebrate birthdays, departures, promotions, new hires, making it through the 3pm meeting, and so on. Work in a decent sized office and it’s not unusual to have one or two “cake days” a week.
What’s more, all these “event cakes” come on top of the muffins and Danish pastries and pain au chocolats that people routinely grab on the way to work. If we were a nation of svelte athletes, none of this would matter. But we’re not: almost two thirds of UK adults are overweight or obese. So what’s the solution?
Yesterday, Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum suggested that instead of dishing out cake to colleagues, we should “give them a smile, a hug or both!”
Well, she had me up to the word smile. Hugs at work, I’m not so sure about. You see, old misery guts that I am, not only do I not like cake, I’m not particularly touchy-feely either. I don’t see co-workers and experience an immediate urge to embrace them.
Yet hugging, like cake, has become commonplace in the office. Where once a handshake was enough, hugs are now increasingly de rigeur. Presumably there are even offices where you have a pre-cake hug (if you can reach each other over your sugar-addled bellies).
It would be easy to attack the office hug on robust, old-school grounds. To say that we used to have stiff upper lips. To say that this kind of emotional incontinence is all a bit American and ghastly and unbecoming. To suggest that hugs should be reserved for wives, small children, pets and close friends (if you really must).
But actually it’s just as easy to attack workplace hugging on practical grounds. Indeed, you can even make a strong PC case for a hug-free workplace. The fact is, in a country like the UK, hugging at work is a legal, psychological and managerial nightmare.
For starters, there’s just so much that can go wrong. Lunge in for a hug that’s unexpected or unwanted and at best it will be awkwardly reciprocated. At worst, you could find yourself accused of sexual harassment.
Research published by the TUC in 2016 suggests that over 50% of women have been sexually harassed at work – and, this includes “inappropriate hugging.” What is “inappropriate hugging”? Well, it’s any hug that the recipient doesn’t want. It could be a hug that you meant well. Why take the risk? Do you really want to cuddle a colleague that much?
In some cases there’s also the problem of how it looks. Sure, there may be nothing untoward when a 57-year-old boss hugs a 22-year-old intern. But appearances do matter. And, if you’re that boss, how you know that the 22-year old really wants to hug you? In fact, if you’re any sort of boss, there’s a power dynamic at work. You may be placing the other person under a kind of hug obligation.
Again, why put them (or yourself) in that position? Smile and say good morning instead.
OK, but let’s say you only hug people who you know are totally cool with hugs. And everyone else gets a handshake. Does that mean everything’s OK? No. You’re creating an “in- group” and an “out group.” I might hug Alison and Bob, rather than Claire and Dave, because the first two are huggers – and the second two aren’t. But this can still create the impression that I favour the first group over the second. If I’m in position of power, that’s a potential problem.
Given that hugging tends to be a younger person’s game, there is perhaps a bit more to be said for peer to peer hugging. If Alison wants to hug Bob and Claire and they’re all at roughly the same age and level of seniority, perhaps this gets rid of some of the issues. But even so, problems abound: the hug could be unwanted and the peer group could be split into huggers and non-huggers with the non-huggers feeling an uncomfortable obligation to hug. You see the quagmire we’re embracing here?
Of course, there probably are some situations where hugging a colleague is OK. Perhaps you’re in Argentina or Turkey where people are more tactile and hugging is a cultural norm. Or perhaps you’re meeting a colleague socially. But these are exceptions. In the office, you are unlikely to ever go wrong with a pleasant smile or a handshake.
Perhaps the most compelling reason not to hug colleagues though is that it distorts the idea of what work is “for” and what workplace relationships mean. In this sense, it’s part of the “fun workplace” movement where there’s little distinction between your job and the rest of your life and you’re all in the office to have a great time. Which is great until it all goes wrong.
Say you have to give someone a final written warming. Perhaps you got the promotion a colleague wanted. Or maybe the company’s not doing so well and you have to make some tough decisions. None of these things are fun. But they’re a lot easier if you have a professional working relationship with the other person. And they’re a lot harder if you’ve spent the last two years hugging the individual and they turn round in tears and say, “but I thought you were my friend.”
So yes, by all means let’s get rid of cake in the office. But let’s replace it with fruit, not hugs.