Doing Business Without Handshakes

Handshakes make us feel comfortable in business settings -- and spread germs that make us sick. Perhaps it's time for a new custom.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

July 29, 2014

4 Min Read

Consider this an early warning for the flu season: Stop shaking hands! In a little more than two months, your co-workers will be facing a germy gauntlet of doorknobs, subway poles, bathroom stalls, and even family members. If you want to help your colleagues stay healthy, spend the next eight weeks eliminating handshakes and hugs, learn to limit the high fives, and try your best to switch to all fist bumps.

Why am I sharing these tips now? Well, partially to give you time to break habits, but mostly because a new study says that you spread 20 times more germs by handshake than by fist bump. You need to make changes not only with your team, but also in the way that you do business, because the handshake is surprisingly valuable.

The study, conducted at the Institute of Biological, Environmental, and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University in Wales, asked volunteers to wear rubber gloves dunked in a solution of e coli. The volunteers then gave each other a handshake, a high five, or a fist bump. The fist bump was found to be 20 times more hygienic than the handshake and 10 times more hygienic than a high five.

The study didn't test this handshake, but I'm guessing it was 100 times worse than all the others.

All kidding aside, there are two competing sides to this issue. One estimate places the cost of sick workers to the US economy at $576 billion. Thirty-nine percent of that figure applies to workers who are sick but still show up and are less productive. Doing anything you can to keep your team healthy can save your company money and improve productivity while keeping key folks at their desks.

[Keep your team healthy and become an office hero. Read How To Be An Office Hero: 3 Myths, Busted.]

On the other hand, the handshake is a valuable business tool. There's a reason we greet colleagues and partners with handshakes and conclude business deals with them. The handshake is hardwired into our brains. Shaking someone's hand doesn't just make you trust someone more (it has actually been known to lower perception of risk in aggressive business deals); it literally triggers happy feelings in your brain.

A study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience studied the value of the handshake in a business setting by showing people animated clips of mock business meetings. Handshakes were included in some of those clips, but not in others. The researchers used a functional MRI, among other equipment, to measure how participants' brains responded to the transactions. When a clip involved a handshake, areas of the brain associated with finding people competent and trustworthy were stimulated.

All people conduct an approach/avoid assessment when seeing a new situation. The study found that a handshake triggered the approach response more often, and a lack of handshake triggered the avoid response. Most intriguingly, watching two people shake hands triggered the same part of the brain that's triggered when a person is being physically touched. This feeling is associated with comfort.

In other words, the handshake is a major part of business success. We have no idea if a fist bump carries the same value. Perhaps it's just simple human touch of any kind that does it. Perhaps the closer contact of the handshake provides that feeling of trust.

Business is better with handshakes, but is it some subset of $576 billion better? If we all agreed on the new norm of the fist bump, would it even itself out?

There's no ready answer to any of these questions, which is why I'm giving you the rest of the summer to think about it. One thought might be to eliminate handshakes on your team but keep them for customers. But trust within your team is important, too. Another thought is simply to keep a polite distance and not initiate any contact. Let's face it; you aren't going to greet new business contacts with a fist bump. They'll think you're crazy.

What do you think? Shake hands and face/spread an onslaught of germs? Avoid contact? Fist bump? Wave? What would you do?

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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