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Shaking Off the Handshake?

A woman wearing a face mask is talking to another woman in an office.

Israel Gaudette has wiped his hands of handshakes since the COVID-19 pandemic started and sees no reason to return to the social and business ritual.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed changed the way we do things," said the founder of Link Tracker Pro, a software-as-a-service company in Sabrevois, Quebec, Canada. For one, he said, "shaking someone's hand no longer is necessary to close a deal," including during the hiring process. "We've been into a lot of interviews and managed to do it all virtually and digitally with ease. To be more precise, the handshake has come to an end."   

Gaudette is not alone in his aversion to grasping someone's palm in greeting.

Nearly three-fourths (72 percent) of 1,000 workers in the United Kingdom and Germany said they no longer want to shake hands, according to an online survey conducted in May. Only 18 percent said they favor handshakes.

More than half (57 percent) are worried their business associates will get too close during face-to-face meetings, and 32 percent are not sure if their workplace has any guidelines to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Their fears aren't unfounded. More than 4 million people around the world have died from COVID-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has the highest reported total—600,000 deaths—and current global hot spots include Brazil and Russia.

Gaudette thinks a wave or a nod is the safest alternative greeting.

"The handshake has come to an end. It's time to practice another form of greeting," he advised. His organization has no guidelines around handshakes, but he said he plans to include one soon in the company's policies. 

"I'm still weighing what works best for us," he said. "We're currently practicing some alternatives."

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Cultural Norms

This is not the first time the handshake has been reconsidered as a workplace greeting. Many people worried about the risks during the spread of the H1N1 virus in 2009 and considered alternatives, like a slight bow or smile.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said people should never shake hands, saying it would dramatically decrease the spread of influenza as well as COVID-19.

Also be aware that some cultures frown upon handshakes, said Natascha Saunders, a career coach and organizational leadership instructor at Northeastern University in Boston.

As attention shifts to creating more-diverse workforces, she has noticed a shift in training modules to make people aware that, in certain cultures and religions, a man is not allowed to shake a woman's hand.

Saunders does not foresee handshakes disappearing as a social or business custom but said employers should discuss the practice in their culture as people return to the workplace.

"HR pays attention to CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines," which advise against shaking hands, Saunders pointed out. "Let's have a conversation with our peers and our leadership to make sure we're in sync. Are we open to other modes of communication? And if so, let's get on the same page."

Shaking hands is a custom that dates back to ancient Roman times. Changing gestures—especially something as established as the handshake—does not come naturally, said Allan Pease, a body language expert. "There will be a conflict in people as they greet each other face to face once again, weighing the old way of doing things versus protecting their personal space," he said.

Saunders advised individuals to think about how they will greet someone and take ownership of the moment. "Think about what would be best for [you]," she said. "Don't wait for somebody to extend their hand. … If you're anti-handshaking, you might need to take the lead in how you want to greet the person, and that person will mirror your behavior."

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]


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