|Aidan Jones. Handshake. flickr.com/photos/aidan_jones|
In support of our newest book, Can I Wear My Kippah on Job Interviews: Career Guidance for Sabbath Observant Jewish Professionals, below are some tips for managing handshaking concerns in a professional environment:
Shomer negiah on interviews and in the workplace brings up many concerns for some professionals. In what contexts would contact be permitted? If contact is not permissible, or a person is simply uncomfortable, what is the best way to respond to an outstretched hand? How can a person maintain a professional image, Avoid insulting or embarrassing a colleague, and be sure not to create a chillul Hashem? There are many opinions on this issue, so it is best to discuss guidelines with your personal Halachic Advisor in advance and have a general game plan prepared for handling situations you expect to encounter.
Many hold that contact in a business context does not imply anything sexual, such that a handshake is permissible. If you hold by this, and you are comfortable with the shake, you can breeze through the handshake. If you are not entirely comfortable with shaking hands, you might decide to explain your feelings to colleagues and business contacts as you get to know each other better.
Many others hold that there are business situations in which contact is still not permissible. Individuals may also feel personally uncomfortable even if a halachic advisor would permit the handshake. If there is a possibility that you will need to avoid a handshake in the office or at an interview, it is wise to have your explanation prepared to minimize awkwardness. Being honest is probably the best way to address it. Explain that you are sorry but that you don’t shake hands for religious reasons. You hope that it isn’t take as a sign of disrespect and you appreciate this opportunity.
Some people also have alternative methods of avoiding addressing shomer negiah when it may be awkward. If you are considering employing an indirect method, be sure to consider in advance whether your method is in fact more professional than just explaining how you feel, and whether your actions could come across as strange or dishonest if you happen to run into the handshaker in the future. Some methods of avoiding contact, and the pitfalls to consider:
* Ignoring an outstretched hand- this method takes a big risk of insulting or embarrassing the handshaker, or of making you appear unprofessional. One might pull this off in the context of an extremely busy and crowded situation where its plausible that you didn't see the hand, but in most cases is not a good idea.
* Your hands are full- this method may work well, but consider the context of your situation and whether keeping your hands full will come across as unusual. Many props can be used, from paperwork to a plate of food and a drink, depending upon the event. If you plan to attempt this strategy, still be prepared to either shake or have an honest explanation of why you aren't shaking in case keeping your hands full becomes conspicuously awkward.
* Apologize for having a cold- this might work in certain situations, particularly with people whom you will never see again, such as in an interview with someone from Human Resources. If you're going to say you have a cold, be sure to be consistent and also use the same line with same-gender shakers at the event to avoid insulting the opposite-gender shaker, who may notice your selective shaking. If it is possible you'll meet the hand shaker again, as with a colleague or the head of the department you are interviewing to work in, this tactic might lead to some awkwardness. You will either have to continually pretend to have a cold, or explain your feelings on negiah at a later date. If you later explain negiah and the shaker has a good memory, he or she may suspect the cold excuse and view you as less than honest.
* Being creative- You could wear a splint on your right hand. You could strategically place yourself to avoid being close enough to shake. Or you can fake a cough just as the shaker reaches out a hand. If you are going to be creative, be sure to think through all the ramifications of your plan before you try it. Always consider whether your plan to avoid shaking hands may be more distracting from the professional you than just being honest, and whether future contacts with the shaker you're avoiding may lead them to recognize your avoidance tactic. If your tactic is suspected, is the shaker likely to think you are dishonest or socially awkward?
When in doubt of how to respond to an outstretched hand you are uncomfortable shaking, err on the side of briefly explaining that you don't shake hands for religious reasons and that you mean no disrespect. Keep it short, and refocus the conversation on the professional topic.
If you found this helpful, please check out Can I Wear My Kippah on Job Interviews: Career Guidance for Sabbath Observant Jewish Professionals. And of course, be sure to check with your halachic advisor with any questions.