People & Human Resources

Don’t touch at work

Eve Ash /

In the continuing theme around end of year office parties and the calamity that can accompany them, I thought I’d examine the psychology around inappropriate touching and why it happens.

There is a tendency to classify people who cross the line as being ‘bad’ people. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Stress relief and what it does

End of year parties are a great way to let off steam. Being with the people you worked with solidly for 12 months, most likely under some fairly intense stress at times, is great fun. But when you experience a release of stress it does strange things to your inhibition. Stress is a very constricting state, and when this is removed we tend to move well beyond our normal state. Things we would previously feel inhibited to do will flow effortlessly. Usually this is limited to laughing, yelling, telling jokes, singing and dancing. Unfortunately it can extend to inappropriate touching.

Boundaries

The boundaries that usually exist in the office are very clear cut. Apart from hand shaking, interpersonal contact is extremely rare and almost never okay. At the end of year parties this tends to shift a bit. There’s less formality and everyone is a lot more relaxed around the boundaries. There tends to be hugging and dancing that blurs the lines of what is normal.

Here is a fun video ‘Don’t Touch at Work’ which often gets people talking about their own experiences of being touched at work:

Even without end of year parties many women complain about prolonged or ‘too close’ hugs from male colleagues, and women often share disgust for those men who choose to give an unwanted kiss on the cheek or worse still those who kiss on the lips. Many share how they quickly turn to the side to wipe down a wet mark on their cheeks. It happens to all of us. And men dislike unwanted lipstick lip shapes on their faces, or makeup smears! Let’s not assume it is all one way!

At a recent corporate gala event, one of my colleagues was trying to manage a situation starting to get out of hand with a woman next to him who had far too much to drink and was leaning over, touching, breathing close – and didn’t notice lack of responsiveness or the hint. The hint – continual talk about his wife and kids – went unnoticed. She tried to get him to the dance floor, and he said no and when she finally found a new target he escaped. When someone makes an advance like this – you have to be firm, fair and quick in your response, as being polite can often be read as encouragement.

False positives and misreading

We have an incredible ability as people to overlook negative information and over-emphasise positive information. If you are at a party, have fancied someone for a long time, and now you’re at a party where the stress has been removed and the boundaries are blurred – it’s very easy to think that this is a sign that your yearning is being reciprocated. Sadly, without a clear and assertive NO, the person who reads this situation as reciprocation of their feelings will continue to see regular behaviours that ‘confirm’ a two-way attraction.

Of course, I’m not condoning inappropriate activity. The purpose of this blog is to understand the root causes of the inappropriate behaviour, which is the best starting point for addressing it. Very few people actively seek to do something wrong at the expense of someone else, yet so many people go ahead and do the wrong thing.

Ask yourself whether your company contributes to an environment that causes these things to happen. How can you create conversations and a dialogue that would prevent these things happening in the first place, rather than trying to clean up the mess after it happens?

Eve Ash has produced a wide array of comedy business films that explore human behaviours at work, and effective leadership.

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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