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Coronavirus: Time to Rethink the Handshake

A business woman is holding out her hand.

​This article was originally posted March 5. It was updated March 16 to include information from the director-general of the World Health Organization.

A handshake. A light kiss on the cheek. Rubbing noses. All are ways people greet each other in the workplace and elsewhere, depending on culture and country. But with communicable diseases such as the novel coronavirus, the flu and colds circulating, it's a good idea to shake off such practices.

Since December, when the coronavirus was identified in China, there have been 90,893 reported cases around the world and 3,110 deaths—including 11 deaths in the U.S. Although 48 countries outside of China have reported cases, 80 percent of the latest cases are from three countries—Korea, Iran and Italy—the director-general of the World Health Organization said March 3.

People everywhere are being urged to rethink how they greet each other to contain the spread of the virus, also known as COVID-19.

The United Arab Emirates and Qatar are asking citizens to stop using the traditional “nose to nose” greeting. France’s minister of health is recommending people there cut back on the custom of greeting others with kisses—even “air kisses,” NBC News reported. The New South Wales health minister is telling people to give each other a pat on the back instead of shaking hands, according to The Guardian.

Red billboards in Beijing are promoting the practice of clasping one's own hands in greeting, and loudspeakers across the country advise using the traditional gong shou gesture of placing one's fist in one's palm.

Government leaders and sports teams are modeling alternative greetings. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bowed and made the Hindu "namaste" gesture in lieu of shaking hands last week at a campaign event. England's cricket team announced it will use a fist bump instead of a handshake with one another and during an upcoming trip to Sri Lanka. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, tweeted that he was  "opting for hand-on-heart instead of hand shakes" as a greeting that allows for social distancing.

[SHRM members-only sample policy: Infectious Disease Control Policy]

While a chest bump hardly seems appropriate and you may want to reconsider the Vulcan "live long and prosper" greeting, a comic strip from the National University of Singapore's Young Loo School of Medicine offered some other alternatives to handshakes: 

  • The soccer team "footshake."
  • The Thai "wai" bow with hands folded, prayerlike.
  • A simple wave of the hand.
  • The "elbow bump." (This may not be the best idea, though, since people are advised to cough into the crook of their elbow.)

No-Handshake Directives 

Businesses such as venture capital companies in Silicon Valley are giving a thumbs-down to hand-to-hand greetings. And the 32nd annual Forum on Workplace Inclusion Conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center in March is implementing a no-handshake, no-hugging policy for attendees.

Real estate brokerage Agape Invests in Denver is encouraging its agents to refrain from shaking hands, said Katie F. Jones, a real estate investor there.

"I believe this is due to the coronavirus because I do not recall any sort of policy like this in the past," she said. While agents haven't been instructed to use any specific alternative greeting, Jones plans to smile and wave.

"This will definitely prove to be challenging. … Handshakes are the common form of greeting. However, I feel as though all of our customers will understand and appreciate the gesture." 

CultureIQ, a culture management company in New York City, is formalizing a policy this week that likely will include a no-handshake directive, said Debra Hreczuck, head of people. 

"A no-handshake policy should be spelled out with kindness and empathy," she advised. "Let those you'll be meeting know ahead of time in writing. Or, if you don't have time for that, before you are in handshake range you can say something like, 'So happy to meet you, but so sorry we have to skip the handshaking. We want to keep everybody safe.'

"Frankly, this is something I worry about even without coronavirus in the picture because I—and my colleagues in HR—shake hands with lots of people throughout our day. Maybe this virus will cause people to rethink the handshake." 

Protocols for Job Seekers 

Whether to shake or not shake hands is a question for job candidates, too, noted Roy Cohen, career counselor and executive coach in New York City.

"The coronavirus presents an enormous challenge for individuals who are seeking employment. A firm handshake is considered the first step in establishing a positive impression in an in-person interview," he said.

He recalled a client who found herself in an awkward position when she met a hiring manager.

"The fellow coughed and covered his mouth. He then proceeded to extend his hand as he greeted my client. She was momentarily taken aback, and after a slight hesitation she shook his hand. But the thought that he may have been sick, even with a minor cold, distracted her from giving the interview her undivided attention. That [distraction] came across, and she did not make it to the next round," he said.

Cohen offered the following suggestions for job seekers: 

  • Ask the person who has set up the in-person meeting if there's a policy around handshakes.
  • Reach out to a contact who works at the organization to learn its policy. 
"If there's no policy and a client is feeling a little nervous about coronavirus transmission, I encourage them to stretch the truth just a little bit if they're not comfortable shaking hands," Cohen said. "Tell the interviewer that you're just getting over a minor cold and you don't want them to catch what you had. Most interviewers appreciate this gesture and often express their thanks for being forewarned.

"Companies must establish a clear policy regarding handshakes and other 'up close and personal' activities," he added, "and then make an effort to communicate this in advance of a meeting."


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