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Dear Workforce How Do We Rein In a Touchy-Feely Employee?

I have a terrific employee who has a troubling habit of being “touchy” in the workplace. Whenever she is standing next to an employee, she usually touches the person’s arm, hand or shoulder. Recently, I saw her talking to a male employee and she had her hand on his chest. As I noted, she is otherwise an outstanding worker who functions at a high level. So how can I broach this subject, letting her know her touching isn’t appropriate in the workplace, but at the same time not offending her?
September 7, 2011
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Related Topics: Harassment, Corporate Culture, Policies and Procedures, Dear Workforce
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Dear Trapped:

Communication and awareness of organizational policy are keys to successfully dealing with this and similar situations.

First some background: The idea of personal boundaries in the workplace is not new. Look at traditional office space here in the United States. Traditionally, the higher you go on the corporate ladder, the more personal space you are given. That corner office is desirable to employees in large part because of the privacy it offers. Culture also plays a part in a person's comfort level regarding personal space, both in one's personal life and in the workplace. People intuitively know that the level of trust and intimacy in a relationship dictates how much physical space should be maintained among colleagues, friends and family. Finally, studies have revealed that women tend to need less personal space than men do, and some women touch a colleague in order to make a closer connection with the person to whom they are talking. The touching is not necessarily a sign of physical attraction. However, it is always improper to touch someone if it makes him or her feel uncomfortable.

There are several steps that should be taken with the employee in question. The situation needs to be dealt with without regard to the employee's job performance or seniority. In policy matters, all employees need to be treated equally and consistently. The employee's professional abilities or executive standing do not make inappropriate actions any more palatable.

The following actions have proved successful in these situations:

• Train employees to understand and respect the clues given to them by co-workers. For example, have you ever watched two people talking and noticed Person A constantly taking one step closer while Person B keeps taking one step backward? Body-language clues can be addressed during employee training sessions.

• Communicate to employees that getting too close for another person's comfort is easy to do, and can happen before they realize it. Associates, supervisors and customers may take close talking and innocent touching as a threat to their emotional or physical well-being. Also communicate that if it's not corrected, this behavior can cost employees their jobs. Finally, employees must understand that such behavior with customers can also affect the company's business relationships.

• Communicate and train your employees on the firm's generally accepted behavior, and include those behaviors in your employee handbook. Such policies should, however, recognize that everyone expresses themselves differently, and we should not confuse differences with bad behavior.

• Encourage your employees to ask colleagues and supervisors to speak up if certain actions offend them.

In summary, communication and awareness are keys to resolving this situation in a manner that keeps all employees focused and working effectively together.

SOURCE: Rania V. Sedhom, principal, Buck Consultants, New York, October 30, 2009

LEARN MORE: Employee misconduct needn't be a problem. Learn what should be tolerated and how to handle behaviors that can spell legal trouble.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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 The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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