The Hill Life: When Friendship and Work Collide

Feb 29, 2012

Belle,

Since Capitol Hill is a bubble in which coworkers and colleagues often are close friends, sometimes I find it hard to walk that fine line when otherwise good friends come in for work meetings. This is especially true for friends of mine who are lobbyists who bring in clients who don’t know me.

So my question is, do you think its appropriate to greet your friends with a hug when they are coming in for meetings? Especially if they are coming in to lobby you with clients present? Do you think its overly sensitive to only shake a friends’ hand (that you would otherwise hug in any other circumstance) when they come in for meetings?

A Senate Staffer

Let me take this question in two parts: as a former staffer and as a lobbyist.

As a lobbyist, I think it helps me when my clients and association members see that I have a friendly relationship with people on the Hill.  Because when they see that I have friends who are staff, it reinforces that I am a person who is liked, respected and in contact with staffers of the Hill.  And I think it usually facilitates a much better meeting when the tone is a little lighter and less formal.

However, I hope that I never become one of those lobbyists who pretends to have a friendship with every staffer that she meets just because she knows their names.  I knew lobbyists like that when I was on the Hill, and it always annoyed me when a lobbyist pretended we were best buddies when I barely knew his name.  Because as we’ve discussed before, there is a profound difference between a friend, a colleague and an acquaintance.  

There might be a case when your friend won’t want a hug, maybe the people she’s bringing in would be put off by it for some reason, so take your cues from her.  But I think most friends would be fine with either a warm handshake or a hug and won’t take it personally.

As a staffer, you are managing a different set of variables.  A lobbyist can be enriched by having a positive relationship with a staffer both inside and outside the office.  However, we’re deluding ourselves if we don’t admit that many Americans would be a little wary if they saw their Congressman’s staffer hugging a Big Bad Lobbyist.  The culture of distrust and suspicion perpetuated by media has created a very negative environment and turned lobbyist into a four letter word, so I think you need to be aware of that perception as well.

Most Bosses won’t care if you hug your friend when she or he comes in for a meeting. They understand that this is a small town and that staffers went to school with, lived with, worked with and are friends with people who later became lobbyists.  But it never hurts to take a moment to consider how your Boss would feel about things, even if you realize immediately that he or she won’t think a thing about it.

You need to decide what level of interaction you are comfortable with having.  If you want to give your friend a quick hug, then do.  In my case, that wouldn’t hurt my perception among my clients or members at all.  And, as I mentioned above, it can make for a better meeting if you set a congenial, friendly tone from the start.  But every office is different, so if you don’t feel comfortable with it, ask yourself why and decide from there.

So lobbyists, association employees and staffers, what do you think?  How should a staffer or lobbyist greet a friend who comes in for a meeting?

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  1. N.M. says:

    As a committee staffer, I would probably bypass a hug or a handshake (especially if other staffers were present) and just give a warm smile and say “it's so nice to see you again.” Maybe I'm alone in this, but I'd feel weird hugging someone at the office, regardless of circumstances.

  2. Belle says:

    NM: Like I said, this is a very personal thing. And if it makes you uncomfortable, there's probably a good reason why.

  3. Liz says:

    Sorry, Belle. I disagree with you. I don't think hugging is appropriate in this situation. If someone is that good of a friend, he/she should understand that you're still friends with them when you give them a big smile and a warm, handshake. I just don't think hugging is professional and certainly not on the Hill.

  4. Belle says:

    Liz: In my office we hugged all the time. Sometimes staffers hug me when I come by. It's all about the office. If it's not cool in yours, then you shouldn't do it.

  5. N.M. says:

    I agree that it's a personal preference, and it also really depends on the office. I've been to meetings with my boss and his brother (who is a lobbyist) and they act like they don't even know each other. That's a little extreme, but it definitely makes me think hugging would not be cool in this office, ever.

  6. TKL says:

    I think it's totally a personal decision. When I worked in the Senate, we were told not to seem too chummy with lobbyists and other people we met with. Now that I'm working for the House, my boss often hugs people he knows, so it's more relaxed.

  7. Rachel says:

    I think this topic raises an interesting point about the different expectations between men and women. With men, its clearly appropriate, logical, and expected for them to shake hands, regardless of the closeness of the friendship or situation. I.e.:
    Best friends in a professional situation would shake hands.
    Best friends in a social situation would shake hands.
    Acquaintances in a social situation would shake hands. Etc., etc., etc.

    If my best friend and I (both female) crossed paths professionally, I would feel very strange shaking hands with her. Obviously, I probably would not shake hands with her in a social situation. I think in a professional situation, I would smile and say hello. I'm not a very “huggy” person in any situation, so I would never hug her in a professional setting. As far as hugs being totally taboo, I am not sure I would go that far but I think it would have to be a pretty unique situation. Like, you haven't seen each other for years or you're Gabrielle Giffords returning to Congress for the first time after being shot.

    Interactions between men and women are a whole different beast. I think as a woman, I would almost go as far as saying there is never a situation where you should hug a male colleague in a professional environment. Certainly, if you are male-female acquaintances, a handshake is the way to go. However, if I crossed paths professionally with my very closest male friend, I don't think I would hug him or recommend anyone do it.

    Sorry for the long post, this is an interesting topic to me.

  8. Helena says:

    I suppose I fit into that stereotype of lobbyists and government officials laying down together. My husband lobbies my agency. Luckily, I do not work in an office that gets lobbied (and we have provided all the necessary disclosures), but when he's in the building, he doesn't usually even visit. If he did, I would hug him, I suppose.

  9. Daisy says:

    I'm not a huggy person, so I personally would not hug someone in a professional setting, but I think it's perfectly fine. I see my boss (female) do it all the time. I'm a lobbyist and I would echo everything Belle said above from a lobbyist's perspective.

  10. annie says:

    i feel like hugging is a completely inappropriate act for any business environment. it is an emotional activity and merely serves to remind men that women are emotional beings who can't separate their professional and personal lives. i would never hug someone at work, regardless of the office.

  11. Desert Rose says:

    I am now a stay at home mom living on the west coast, but just a few months ago I was a hill staffer in the House. I think what is appropriate in this case depends on the office. In my last office hugs were perfectly acceptable and common. After living and working on the hill for many years, you develop friendships that transcend your current hat, whether you're still on the hill and your good freind is at an association, lobbying or at an agency. However, after the warm hug and a brief chit-chat, when they get into lobbyist mode and thier client presents on thier issue, I am in full staffer mode asking the tough questions that my boss would want me to ask.

  12. KLo says:

    I honestly wouldn't dare hug a best friend, my husband or my father in a professional setting. Maybe my mom, but she's a public school teacher, so it's unlikely we'd interact on a “professional” level, rather than a family member visiting the other's place of business. However, I do think the hand on the back thing is warmer than a handshake, and I would feel comfortable doing that in front of anyone.

    No matter, I think it's pretty easy convey warmth and a good relationship simply through tone and a smile.

  13. Belle says:

    Annie: Not everything that a woman does in an office is being psychoanalyzed for gender discussions. At least not in any office I've ever worked in.

  14. Lara says:

    I do a lot of quick back pat, side hugging. I went to college with most of the people that I work with and do business with, so it would be awkward to suddenly pretend that they were any other business colleague. My Member doesn't seem to care.

  15. K says:

    Honestly, I think there is NEVER anything wrong with a handshake in a professional setting, especially if you have uninitiated clients with you. I would shake hands both with a good friend or someone I detested. It is just plain polite. And I am not one who encourages hugs in a professional context. Save that for drinks much later. I think that the warmth and acknowledgement you are looking for should be conveyed through the rest of your greeting: tone, asking after someone or their family on very specific points, body language, etc. Your friends know you are friends. You integrate your client into that existing relationship on a case by case basis. This allows you to dial your greeting back based on cues from your friend in the case that it may be important for them to maintain some objective distance from your client.

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