Health Alert: Should You Ban Handshakes in Your Office?

With Ebola and myriad other diseases in the news and flu season just about to kick off, some people are calling for a ban on the handshake. Is that the right move for your business?
November 04, 2014

The first piece of business advice I was given that stuck was to greet a new person with a firm, enthusiastic handshake. Since that day 16 years ago when my boss said my shake had to be “more confident,” I've been telling countless college graduates to think about their handshaking approach as a critical part of making a solid first impression. After all, you don’t want to be a dead fish (too limp) or a bulldozer (too aggressive). And it takes practice to get it right.

Now, though, there’s a worldwide movement to banish the handshake from our business culture. Citing concerns about public health based on Enterovirus D68, Ebola and other highly contagious diseases, several institutions are now on the anti-handshaking bandwagon. Earlier this year, the Journal of the American Medicine Association instructed hospital staff to avoid them, then Aberystwyth University, a U.K.-based university, published a study illustrating that handshakes spread too many germs.

Limited Alternatives

Numerous articles from sources as varied as TechCrunch and The Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times and Vox have extolled the virtues of eliminating the handshake and replacing it with the "Hey bro" fist bump pioneered by President Obama during his first campaign. There's even a website that promotes the fist bump or, as the site calls it, the bumpshake.

The fist bump has caught on a bit, I admit, but it does not and should not replace the handshake. For one thing, many people think it’s silly, and you don’t want a new business associate’s first impression of you to be that you’re a buffoon. For another, using a fist bump risks offending a contact who expects a handshake.

Even if the person you’re meeting doesn’t care if you twirl in a circle as an introduction, there's nothing more awkward than a non-reciprocated fist bump left hanging in the air. It took thousands of years for the handshake to root itself firmly in our culture. Until the fist bump approaches the same tenure, you’re safer using the handshake—it's the gesture of the masses.

What if you’re in a new work situation and you’re worried that the handshake is out of vogue? In that case, carefully observe the greeting behavior of others around you. Your goal is to assimilate. If no one else is shaking hands, then you shouldn't be the only one to do so. I suspect, though, that in the Western world, these situations are few and far between.

Hygiene, Not Handshakes

I understand people's concerns about spreading disease. Tis the (flu) season, and believe it or not, I may be more of a germaphobe than most of you.

But just as I resign myself to touching railings, elevator buttons and doorknobs in the course of a normal business day, so must I shake human hands. I simply carry a bottle of sanitizer with me at all times and wash my hands with soap and water whenever I can. I also try not to touch my face in public. Banning handshaking won’t stop people from getting sick—only constant attention to hygiene can do that.

If you were thinking of instituting a no-handshaking policy in your office, please don’t. It will only serve to confuse people.

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