should you hug former colleagues when you see them at a job interview?

A reader writes:

A year ago, after a long tenure at a large corporation, I decided it was time for a change. The company had been undergoing significant turmoil, and a number of my peers had already been laid off or had left on their own. The position that I took is at a very nice company, and I like the corporate culture here. However, I am just not finding the role to be quite the right fit, and I find my manager unprofessional (at best). I’ve done some scouting around here to see if I could switch managers and that doesn’t seem to be an option, at least not any time soon. HR has given me some strategies to deal with my manager, and it’s helped a bit, but I’m a working mom with young children, and if I am going to have my little ones in daycare, it’s going to be for a job that I really like.

What I decided to do is to see if there are opportunities at companies where there are clumps of employees from my former employer. I’ve kept in touch with a lot of people and LinkedIn made this process easy. There are four local companies that fit the bill. One of these happens to have an opening which sounds like a great fit, and as an an added bonus, it’s very close to my home. I applied (and I took the time to write a cover letter only because of your blog, so thank you). I then right away reached out via email to the two most senior people at this new company who I know. They both immediately offerred to help me out, and one of them even walked my resume into the hiring manager’s office for me (the CFO). I had the phone screen scheduled within a few hours, and I am waiting to hear when an interview will be scheduled next week. In the phone screen that I had earlier today, the recruiter made it clear that she had already asked around about me, and that I have the support of several people behind me in my candidacy for this job.

Here’s my question: I know about ten people at this company. I’m friendly with a lot of my coworkers, but I tend (for various reasons, some of which have to do with my work role) to keep my work life and my personal life separate. I mean, I chat with my coworkers and we’re friends, but I don’t see very many people outside of work, and I tend to drink very little at company events. So when I go into the office for the interview, if I see old coworkers who I know, do I hug them hello? I don’t want this to be awkward, and have I mentioned how very appreciative I am of the support? But the idea of hugging people hello while in a new office on an interview … I am concerned how the recruiter might view this. I definitely don’t want to give the impression that I am taking it as a given that I am getting the job because I have connections. What do you think?

Don’t hug them.

Greet them warmly, look pleased to see them, ask them with interest how they’ve been — but don’t hug them.

I know there are lots of huggers out there, and there are even some offices where hugging is normal (to my enormous discomfort), but there are far more offices where hugging as a greeting — even when you haven’t seen the person in a while — doesn’t generally happen. So it’s certainly not expected, and it’s not going to look weird if you don’t.

Of course, if someone moves in for a hug to you, return it — don’t pull away in horror or anything. (Assuming it’s not this woman.) But there’s absolutely no need for you to go in planning on hugging anyone.

And no one will be offended by that. It’s an office, you’re former colleagues, not close friends, and you’re there for a job interview, not cuddles and embraces.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

    1. Jean*

      Nice solution! If everybody takes your advice there will be no more hugging in the workplace because nobody will be initiating. The save-the-world-by-hugging people might be disappointed, but the rest of the world would be relieved.

      For the record, I’ve been a workplace hugger during two jobs, but only because that was already the prevailing culture in each workplace. One was focused on young children; the other concerned social services delivered by religiously-affiliated organizations–not exactly your typical, big, bright corporate environments.

      1. Jamie*

        I agree…it will stamp out the practice. There have been times I’ve seen one coming and stepped behind furniture, picked something up…tactfully making hugging inconvenient.

        I’ve been hugged twice at work where it was okay, the other times weird me out. And don’t even get me started on the kissing thing. Seriously, ill see you after Christmas break…you don’t have to kiss me!!

        1. TL*

          I grab both hands when they’re coming for a hug and gently circle them away from me while smiling and saying hi.

          It can get a little awkward but it tends to work as a reminder that I’m not a hugger – I only use it after having already telling someone that I’m not a hugger.

        2. Heather*

          I was hugged after I came back from a 4 month medical leave. Just by a few people. I’m not a hugger but I didn’t mind. And really that’s the molt time I would want it.

  1. PEBCAK*

    In general, touching people without their permission is not okay. Just don’t do it. Even in a casual setting, you do not know someone’s boundaries unless you have asked them, and while you may take nonverbal cues from some people, especially those you know well, the assumption that people like/are okay with touching is always worth verifying.

    Obviously, handshakes are expected in a business setting, but the nice thing about a handshake is that it actually happens halfway between two people. If you put your hand out for a handshake and someone does not reciprocate, you have not violated their boundaries. Generally, they will say something like “oh, I’m sick right now” or whatever, and you move on.

    1. Anonymous*

      I feel like OP previously hugged these people though – otherwise, why would she even bring it up?

      1. just another hiring manager...*

        I’m not sure that the OP has hugged these folks before. The letter doesn’t indicate one way or the other… If she had never hugged these folks, it would be pretty strange to start at an interview. If she had hugged them before, I would take their lead.

  2. KayDay*

    Oh, I’ve been waiting for an opportune time to share a mortifying thing I did at work. I’m super awkward about whether or not to hug people (I’m a former non-hugger who became friends with a lot of huggers and now I’m an awkward-hugger).

    Anyway, I ran into someone I know from a social setting in my office building (she was just visiting). In said social setting, hugs we be totally appropriate. So I leaned in for a hug. As soon as I had gripped her in my embrace, I notice that she was only very hesitantly reciprocating. So I immediately release my hold on the poor woman as I realized that I was technically assaulting her, and backed up in horror. We exchanged a few more pleasantries and said goodbye.

    Moral of the story: Don’t hug them.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      When I first started consulting, I was leaving a client after our first in-person meeting. I was holding a huge plastic cup of iced tea, because we’d met at a coffee place. She leaned in to hug me, which was totally weird and unexpected, but instead of just handling it normally and returning the hug, I for some reason was so thrown off that I dropped my huge iced tea, which then exploded everywhere, all over her.

      She never tried to hug me again.

      1. Seal*

        That’s one way to handle it! Perhaps us non-huggers should carry large beverages at all times, just in case.

    2. JC*

      Eek. Yeah, this post made me shudder from an unpleasant memory too. I had just been hired by my boss and she invited me to a work retreat to get to know some of the other employees. When I arrived, my boss and I greeted each other. It looked like at first she was leaning in for a small “greeter” type of hug. But I think she was just holding her arm out strangely so I got the wrong message. Half-way through the hug initiation I realized I messed up and I was mentally screaming to myself “noooooooooo!” She hugged me lightly (pat on the back) and it was so quick it only lasted a couple seconds. Everything was pretty normal after that…thankfully! Taught me to be more careful in examining those type of cues in the future.

  3. Jobhunting*

    I wrote the question, and I appreciate everyone’s feedback. My instinct is: don’t hug. Bottom line: if hugging felt right, I wouldn’t have needed to submit the question. So I will carefully not initiate, and hope no one else does either. I really want the job and I’m hoping it goes well.

    (I think I might fit in the awkward-hugger category. Perhaps I can start a support group for this as a side business)

  4. Joey*

    I try to do the side to side semi hug one arm back pat when people go in for the hug. I’m just weird about hugging face to face at work.

  5. Ann O'Nemity*

    One of my past interviewers was an old colleague I really liked. If I had met her on the street, we would have hugged. At the interview, we shook hands.

  6. Anon*

    I love this blog, but I have to take exception with:

    Of course, if someone moves in for a hug to you, return it — don’t pull away in horror or anything.

    There’s no “of course” about it. You’re not required to hug anyone who wants to hug you. It doesn’t matter if it makes an awkward situation; they’re the ones who created the awkward situation and the ones who are trying to pressure you into physical contact.

    If you are okay with surprise physical contact, by all means return it. But if you are not okay with random people hugging you, it is totally fine to take a step back/put your hand up and turn it into a handshake. You aren’t required to hug anyone just to make a situation less awkward.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Of course. I assumed that went unsaid, and I don’t think there’s anything in six years of posts on this site that would lead anyone to think I’d ever advocate tolerating unwanted touching.

      But this is someone asking if she should hug people or if it would look odd, so it’s reasonable to assume she’s comfortable with it.

    2. -X-*

      She’s talking about etiquette. You’re not required to not wear blue face paint either – that’s your business. But that doesn’t mean suggesting someone not wear blue face paint to an interview is infringing on your right to wear what you want on your face.

      “random people”

      If a random person – some random person out of the several thousand I see each day – tried to hug me I wouldn’t let that person do so. A person who knows me from working together is not random. So different etiquette applies.

      “It doesn’t matter if it makes an awkward situation; ”

      It does matter because the OP is trying to get a job, and pulling away in horror may undermine that.

  7. Anon*

    If you want to ensure “no hug” then you have to be proactive and initiate the hand shake. Sticking out your hand makes it clear to both sides what’s next, and might save them that moment of oh geez, should I hug them? (I find clasping my left around our shaking hands somehow means “we’re extra close” instead of we just met, but not sure how cultural that is)

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      I agree with this. I’ve also found that elbows-out deflects any sudden side hugs.

  8. Not So NewReader*

    I have no problem with people who hug. But I almost never initiate a hug. And I try to make sure other people are around or I am in a public area- private hugs are too much.

    I am a big fan of using two hands to shake hands for emphasis. This is something that comes from the heart- if you are actually very glad to see the person put your other hand over theirs and tell them “It’s good to see you, again.” Nothing wrong with letting your professional warmth show. For me, the key is the sincerity behind the gesture.

  9. Brandy*

    My old boss was a hugger. She still is. Giant, awkward, bear-hugger. PLus, I was one of her favorite employees, ever. If I saw her on the street, she’d hug me. If I walked into a company she worked for, she’d hug me (luckily, she’s started her own consulting firm, so the liklihood of that is zero). If I saw her at a trade show, she might put her arm around me (full on hug if alcohol is involved).

    So…I’d say no. But if they initiate, you may reciprocate.

    1. LT*

      I did that once, plus I awkwardly hugged an ex-coworker once. I have felt incredibly embarrassed and awkward about both hugs ever since. They kind of just happened by accident, really. I didn’t even actually like either person I hugged. Weird.

  10. Chris80*

    This reminds me of a former supervisor. I worked for her for four years, during which time she routinely nitpicked every aspect of my work, in addition to routinely yelling at me in front of my coworkers and customers. Yet, when her last day arrived, I tried to leave with a cheerful “Good luck at your new job!”, only to hear the response “Hey now! You can’t leave without giving me a hug first!”.

    She really did like me, I think, but she just had little to no social skills or talent for managing people. The hug was incredibly awkward.

  11. Elizabeth West*

    The big boss at ExJob (president of the country division) hugged me once when he came for a visit. I was surprised, but I hugged back–he really is very nice.

    LOL Alison, I knew exactly what post you were linking to with “this woman!” Thanks for the retro giggle!

  12. The Other Dawn*

    For me a hug is a sign of love and affection. It’s not a greeting. I hug my dad and my husband. That’s it. Not even my siblings unless I haven’t seen them in a long time. I cringe when I see a hug coming from an acquaintance. It just seems insincere to me.

    1. -X-*

      “It’s not a greeting” and “It just seems insincere to me.”

      You’re projecting your feelings onto other people. I don’t like hugs, but know that a lot of huggers genuine like it, and have been around cultures where hugging, or at least more body contact, is more common.

      It’s fine to cringe if you don’t like getting hugged yourself or you sense that a person receiving a hug doesn’t like it. But cringing because you think it’s fake? You’re wrong, at least some of the time. Probably a lot of the time.

  13. Judy*

    I was curious about responses based on culture. I work daily with people from Europe, South America and Asia over email and conference calls. I travel internationally at least once a year, and have international visitors several times a year.

    Between the Italians hugging and talking to you with arm gestures about 6″ away, and the Mexicans and Brazilians hugging on greeting, and the team in Poland who greets everyone daily with a handshake in the morning and afternoon, I’ve seen a lot of different office interactions.

    1. -X-*

      Good point Judy.

      I know that in the US hugging is presumptuous, and in some cases with men hugging women there are disturbing dynamics at play. And I can understand a small number of people having had bad experiences in life related to physical contact, or genuine phobias.

      But I have to wonder how some of the people here would function in various cultures given the profound affect unwanted hugging seems to have on them. (Perhaps there is some kind of non-physical contact tendency in readers of this blog, or at the people who don’t like that stuff tend to talk about it more here.)

      I should mention that I do not like hugging at all – to the extent that last week in a farewell email to all-staff a touchy-feely person leaving my organization actually wrote that in all her time she’d never been able to hug me. But sometimes we have to reciprocate. So I do.

      PS – on Friday I ran into a friend who was born in Italy and he stood so close to me during our conversation…

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’m sure they would function just fine. But that doesn’t mean they’d like it. Not liking something doesn’t mean that you can’t handle yourself just fine when it happens.

  14. Joey*

    Speaking of hugging I have a female colleague that I’m positive hugs as part of her strategy to strengthen business relationships with other women. Never will she hug men and never will she hug colleagues, only female customers that she is trying to influence and she always hugs them. I’m curious, from a women’s perspective do you have any issues with this? Or is this perfectly acceptable?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      As a woman, that would annoy me. First, I don’t think it’s appropriate for business relationships to begin with — but I also wouldn’t appreciate feeling like she thought there was something about doing it to a woman that was okay when she wouldn’t do it to a man (for instance, that she thought that as a woman, I traffic more in touchy-feeliness than in regular business conventions).

    2. khilde*

      I agree with the others. I’m pretty neutral on hugging. When it’s genuine and sincere and the context is more suitable to it I think they’re fine, but I don’t and wouldn’t initiate them in the workplace. So for a female colleague to single out and hug only the one would seem disengenous to me and the result she’s looking for would fall flat. I personally wouldn’t be offended or anything. I just think it would be schmarmy and I would be dubious of her future efforts to strengthen relationships.

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