Office greetings: how to be business-like - as published in the Times

4 mins

Posted on 21 Jun 2016

The meeting door opens slowly and a number of people rise to greet you. The men extend their hands and as you shake them, in the corner of your eye you see a woman you have met briefly before moving towards you smiling. A split second decision is required. Do you simply shake her hand? Do you kiss her? You decide to be bold but in a moment of mutual confusion you end up attempting both awkwardly, clash faces and spend the rest of the meeting wondering if you have offended her. Sound familiar?

What is it about social kissing; surely after all these years we should have sorted out the rules? On the eve of National Kissing Day, it is clear that is not the case. Up until the 1950s things were made simple as unbridled gender discrimination excluded women from the board and meeting rooms of Britain. But from the 1960s as women rightly entered the office workforce in ever increasing numbers, things became wrongly more muddled.

In over 50 years, we have still not adopted a simple unisex rule of either shaking everyone’s hand or kissing everyone “faux-french” style. And the reason? Well perhaps it is because this somehow feels inadequate. Rather like holding doors open as a courtesy, the feeling that women should receive a kiss rather than a handshake is hard for many men at least to shake off.

But is what has been described as chivalry actually welcome? Is this just an issue for men? From my own research, many female friends and colleagues confess confusion both when greeting men and other women. So as always when the wheels fall off, we must look to the law to seek help for what we must now call the “Kisser” and “Kissee”. Will we find it? Well not at first glance. There are no set rules in our equality law but only principles which can be thought hard to apply. But the core here is simply to consider what conduct is actually welcomed by the recipient and the impact is has on them. To amount to harassment, the conduct has to be unwelcome and have the purpose or effect of violating the recipient’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

A kiss then is unlikely to cause problems between colleagues of longstanding, assuming that they have a good working relationship. Kissing a subordinate is more risky as they could feel intimidated and yet feel bound to go along with it. Riskier still is choosing to kiss only younger colleagues as this can just makes you come across as a letch (no law required). It is really a matter of common sense and judgment. If in doubt, avoid the kiss.

As employment lawyers we are often met with allegations that the law has taken all of the fun out of the workplace, but this is unfair. It’s just that now the rule is that it should be fun for everyone, not just a select few. We could simply declare kissing in the workplace a dangerous anachronism, but if like me you believe that eliminating the humble kiss on the cheek is a tad defeatist, surely on this the eve of National Kissing Day of all days, we must consider that the humble kiss on the cheek is worth saving?

Properly considered, equality law does hold the answer rather than the problem. It just requires a bit of intelligent effort. It is not a free for all but as you greet those people in the meeting room you do have a choice. Surely no-one can be offended if you simply shake their hand. If you know from experience that a colleague or contact would welcome a kiss on the cheek then kiss them (chastely) on the cheek. If you are unsure don’t. If you are particularly good at empathy then a decision can be made on the move as you read their body language, but are you really that perceptive?

And as for me? On becoming an “Articled Clerk” to a firm of solicitors in 1988 I was given only two cardinal rules. The second was not to “dip your pen in the Company’s ink”. I married the receptionist; so what do I know?

This article, written by Darren Clayton, was originally published in the Times at

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