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Behold the Terror of the Workplace Hugger

How are you gonna get out of this one?

There is an alarming new threat creeping across the literal bodies of workers in the western world: unwanted hugging from CEOs and colleagues who, it seems, have their hearts in the right place when it comes to enthusiastic morning greetings—but definitely not their bodies. According to the Wall Street Journal, a handful of CEOs and coworkers have added hugs to the office memorandum, heartily pressing their bodies against unwitting workers all in the name of team building. Say it with me: Shudder.

First off, it’s not clear how truly pervasive this hugging movement is in practice — there are a handful of companies mentioned in the piece and a survey cited that suggests an uptick in workplace hugs. Rachel Feintzeig writes:

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.

The piece describes a few anecdotes that you might consider run-of-the mill hugging incidents. An applicant at a software company called Dovico in Canada, for instance, goes in for a handshake with CEO Yves Doucet at his interview, and gets a face full of body instead. “I was like, ‘Oh, okay, this is happening,’ ” the employee told the WSJ. “It wasn’t like I had a job or anything. It was two strangers just hugging.”

That seems like the sort of brief errant hug we’ve all survived, and hey, the applicant got the job! He then appropriately let them know immediately after hiring that he wasn’t into the hugging. CEO Doucet told the coworker it was all good, and would be respected. “You don’t lose your job if you don’t hug,” Doucet told the WSJ. Hug crisis averted?

Other companies interviewed in the piece mention monthly hugs at staff meetings to boost morale; also hugs implemented because it was easier for people who have arthritis and can’t do the more traditional handshake.

But make no mistake: All is not well in Hugsville. Each of these folksy hug stories has a dark side. Turns out that Dovico CEO Doucet is, in fact, a hugging maniac on the loose:

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 Doucet.

Another guy in the story (and they are all guys), Sheldon Yellen of Belfour Property Restoration in Michigan, was once hugged by a worker so tightly that he broke three of Yellen’s ribs. Yellen, unfazed, still gives hundreds of hugs a week. For every hugs-are-great assertion in the piece, there are counter tales of a worker being chased down to get hugged by a manager or standing, arms glued to the side, to evade embrace.

Then there’s THE HUG ZONE. The CEO of a company called Ted Baker has a dedicated hug circle in the company’s London headquarters actually called the hug zone. It is 10 feet wide, for accompanying two to three huggers, used five times a day, and obviously an untapped premise for a future horror movie.

Huggers and nonhuggers are born of different planets, but the huggers must bear the brunt of this evil for compelling reasons: The workplace is supposed to be a reliably touch-free environment where you presumably leave your personal problems at the door, alongside your need for physical affection from people you share a Keurig with. Maybe these guys think hugs are an improvement on decades of ass-grabbing and being pinned against a fax machine in the copy room for an unwanted grope, but that’s like calling death by lethal injection an improvement on death by firing squad. Maybe, but you’ve still been hugged (to death). Also, sexual harassment suits often include hugging as part of unwanted touch — one in the WSJ story involved a manager being sued for 12 years’ worth of unwanted hugs (he lost).

Perhaps more disturbing is how tone-deaf huggers in the workplace seem about their intrusions.

“I’m just a hugger!” they say, as if they can’t help needing to invade someone else’s physical space to get their needs met. It makes me feel good! Why not everyone! The men and an expert interviewed in the story insist these forced tight squeezes ease tensions, demonstrate “companionate love,” and enable trust.

But that is only, critically, if the hug is actually consensual. “What’s missing [from this story] is consent,” Cuddle Club Seattle founder Lashanna Williams tells MEL by phone. “While hugging is great, it’s not for everybody. While we should encourage it, I don’t think it should be forced on people or it could be damaging. It could be an affront. It’s not a violent assault, but it’s offensive.”

Williams says the pros of hugging are well-documented — there’s a hormonal release; your blood pressure drops. “The physical and chemical changes from a safe touch are profound,” she says. “But they are equally profound [in the other direction] when it’s unwanted.”

Williams would know. She not only does massage therapy and cuddle services in Seattle, but before that, she was in human resources at a corporation for years where she was the office hugger. When she left to start up her cuddle business, no one was surprised, because she was the sort of person who greeted everyone who came into her office with hugs. But that’s precisely why she understands how important consent is, and she noticed and encouraged people to verbalize when they just weren’t into hugging.

She has also contracted with many businesses who offer employees massage services as part of the perks package — employees can sign up for a 15-minute session and decompress for the day. Many times, she offered a 15-minute cuddle service as part of the package for workplaces, too thinking it could potentially be a new tool for employees “who are averse to touch to find a touch that might be safer on their own terms.”

Williams says she’s never had a single taker. That may be because we’re just not ready for the workplace hug, which is probably because we will never be ready for the workplace hug. Many huggers simply don’t get that one man’s hug is another man’s iron maiden.

“The tone deaf huggers get something out of hugging people and aren’t concerned about what that hug is doing to that other person,” she said. “The energy of a hug is amazing and wonderful, and people should keep putting it out there. But don’t force it on people. It’s not okay.”

That’s why she recommends that people know the difference between types of hugs. “My hugs aren’t long, mushy, full-breath embraces,” she said. “That’s not a workplace hug,” she said. “Is it putting your hands all around my waist and gripping my hips?” she asked. “No, it’s not.”

A workplace hug, then, is brief, and not “exploratory,” she said. “It’s thoracic cavity and up. No lumbar grab. It’s not you have the measles so let me let go immediately, either. It’s a hug that’s just a hug. They are quick embraces, like here we go, done.”

But, again, for some people, no hug is a welcome hug. Our own HR expert Terry Petracca says it’s basically an HR nightmare. “I think the problem is that it may not be authentic from either party, and that creates distrust,” she says. “Do you think the CEO is still hugging when he knows there may be layoffs upcoming if business doesn’t improve? Do you think the employee who wants to fit in is going to shout ‘unwanted embrace’?”

An unwanted hug in this setting, then, becomes physical and emotional terrorism — it’s a trust fall at a corporate retreat, only way more terrifying, because it’s face to face, body to body, scent to scent, horror to horror. It needs to go away.

“Let’s just let people be genuine at work,” Petracca added. “And stay away from new age shit under the guise of transparency.”