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Mark Phelan: I won't be part of auto industry workplace hugging anymore

Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Op Eds

Any day now, I'll walk into a room with no idea who expects me to hug them and who doesn't. I hate that feeling, so I'm going to do something about it.

I walk into those rooms a hundred times a year at auto shows, vehicle introductions, dinners and interviews with automotive executives and engineers.

The execs and engineers are easy. I don't hug them; they don't hug me. It's purely professional.

Somewhere along the line, though, it became common, but not universal, for male automotive journalists and female public relations staffers to greet with a hug.

Don't ask me why, and definitely don't ask me who wants to be hugged and who doesn't, because nobody asks. We just do it.

I spoke with a number of people in the auto and communications industries for this column. Their experiences vary, but no one was 100% comfortable with the practice. All asked to speak anonymously, because their comments could affect how their bosses, colleagues or journalists view them.

Nobody was instructed to hug, or do anything else they might be uncomfortable with, but one woman said, "It's prevalent in male-dominated industries. Women have to be 'fun and flirty' to get along."

'YOU WALK AWAY FEELING A LITTLE LESSENED'

I have no reason to believe every woman in the field feels this way. But if one does, it's too many. I won't be a part of it anymore.

"You do feel uncomfortable," another female communications executive said. "I felt once I knew someone I'd give a hug. But there's a moment of 'Should I or shouldn't I?'

"There shouldn't even be a moment. We're professional; we shake hands."

The relationship between journalists and public relations or communications people has several levels. It's often casual and amicable, but never solely social. PR people control access to information and executives. Journalists affect the perception of a company, its products and executives. That's particularly true of columnists like me, who write reviews, opinion and analysis of automakers, their leaders and the vehicles they sell.

"There's definitely a subtle power dynamic. It's always awkward," a woman said. "Some leave their hand on you a little too long. It's a way of letting you know he's going to use his power that way.

"You walk away feeling a little lessened."

Some people in the business hug to make their boss happy, or the journalist, or to fit in.

"I worried that if I told a journalist a hug was too long, or their hand was an inch too low, they'd ask my boss why I was such a bitch," an experienced communications executive told me.

'I'M HERE TO DO A JOB'

 

Neither the auto industry nor journalism is an especially huggy field. I don't hug or expect to be hugged by the female engineers, plant managers and executives I meet. Male PR people don't hug me, but they at least occasionally hug female journalists, some of whom could live without it.

"It's a recurring theme," said Angela Hall, associate professor of Human Resources Management at Michigan State University. "Not everyone wants to be hugged. You should allow the other person to initiate.

"A two-handed shake can communicate warm affection, but not be creepy."

The auto industry remains male-dominated. After nearly 140 years, there's been a grand total of one female CEO at an automaker: General Motors' Mary Barra. A recent study by McKinsey & Co. found that no automaker doing business in the U.S. has women in more than 23% of vice president or higher jobs. Two -- Hyundai and Kia -- had zero. Two others -- Toyota and BMW -- wouldn't answer the question, which doesn't give much cause for optimism about the answer.

The automotive press isn't much better. Just two women have held the top editorial job at any of the leading auto magazines. Whoopee! A good 90% of the press at most automotive events are still men.

"I should decide who I want to hug," a woman who's spent her career in in communications told me. "I don't want the vendor who sells me paper hugging me. Why should this be different?

"I've had two male journalists back away from hugging me. I took it as professional, them saying, 'I'm here to do a job.' I felt it was really healthy."

I believe few people intentionally cross the line, but still, some discomfort exists.

It's not just the auto industry.

"To change a norm, somebody's got to take the initiative" a female finance CEO told me. "I shake hands. If they say, 'I've known you for 20 years. Don't I get a hug?' I say, 'You get one if you want one!'"

About The Writer

Mark Phelan is auto critic and columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

(c)2020 Detroit Free Press

Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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