Kissing colleagues an awkward office dilemma

by Stephanie Zillman27 Apr 2012

Modern workplace relationships are often very close. A few years ago the terms ‘work-wife’ and ‘work-husband’ even started circulating. 

Not long before the federal leadership debacle of 2012, we witnessed the awkward exchange between the PM herself and Kevin Rudd as they celebrated the passing of the carbon tax – Kevin went for a handshake, Julia leaned in for a hug, and they ended up with a kiss.

The ‘workplace kiss’ remains an unspoken dilemma causing awkward moments in offices around the country. So, is it ever appropriate to kiss a colleague on the cheek?

There’s no confusion whatsoever in most European countries: the answer is never. (Though socially, as many as four kisses is the norm). According to the Knigge Society in Germany, which sees itself as a national watchdog for etiquette, kissing colleagues and clients is a recent phenomenon, and not a German tradition.The chairman of the etiquette society said he received several inquiries from Germans on whether kissing someone to say hello or goodbye is appropriate at the workplace. “Kissing simply gets on the nerves of many at work. In business a handshake is considered the correct greeting ritual. In a country with strict behavioural protocol where colleagues can spend the rest of their lives referring to each other with the formal ‘Sie’ instead of ’du’, pecks on the cheek are seen as nothing less than a threat to the natural order.”

If only it were that straightforward in Australia.

The now chaotic practice of hugs, shakes and kisses has brought confusion into the once stuffy (yet straightforward) business world, where not so long ago the absence of a tie raised eyebrows.

In an article published by the BBC, body language expert Judi James reassured that eye contact is really what’s important, and a handshake is the safest greeting. But James said it’s important to keep a mental note with different colleagues and clients, to avoid causing possible offence by accidentally “downgrading” a relationship from kiss to handshake.

Yet Mark Millard, a chartered psychologist who helps firms and individuals improve their well-being, said the responsibility is on workplace leaders to set the tone for the organisation, and confirm what kind of greeting is appropriate and expected – especially between junior and senior members of staff. Millard said the confusion has arisen because there is a push to be more familiar at work, and as a result people are genuinely unsure of the correct greeting, and afraid they’ll get it wrong.

Additionally, there’s always the lingering fear that a peck on the cheek is breaching equality and sexual harassment laws. So what's the safest way to play it? Millard said that having a genuine smile and respecting other people’s personal space at work is the best bet, and that kissing is not the only sign of being confident and relaxed.


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