Do You Shake Hands When You’re Sick?

Shaking Hands, originally uploaded to Flickr by Aidan Jones

2016 Update: Check out our latest discussion on 6 Things to Have on Hand When You’re Sick at Work.

Today’s poll is inspired by reader V’s question:

I work in Big Law and throughout the recruiting season, I shake a lot of hands. Now and then I encounter someone who says, I’m sorry, I don’t shake your hand I’m sick. While I respect that and appreciate that it’s considerate, frankly I find the little spiel about “not shaking your hand because I’m sick” a bit off putting and it sure as hell makes for awkward introductions.

Interesting… I’ve always thought it’s common courtesy to *not* shake someone’s hand if you know you’re sick.  The only caveat I can think of is one outside the recruiting context — where, say, you’re sick and in a situation where you’re the most junior person in the room — and your boss barks out to the VIP some half-introduction and you’re expected to dive forward, shake VIP’s hand (with a firm, competent handshake!), and then recede back into the shadows to do all the work.  In that situation, it would break the flow of the half-second transaction for the sickee to inform the VIP and boss that s/he is sick, and really, at that point they deserve whatever they catch from you.*  (Pictured: Shaking Hands, originally uploaded to Flickr by Aidan Jones.)

But, like I said, that is usually not what happens in the recruiting context.  I agree, being on the receiving end can be a little awkward — but I usually just say “oh, thank you! feel better” and move on with the conversation.  If I really feel the need to make some sort of movement (because I’ve held my hand out too enthusiastically or whatever) I might do a slight bow, perhaps with both hands pressed together in front. But that’s just my $.02 — let’s hear from the readers.  First, we’ll take a poll from the sickee side of things:


How have you guys handled the situation from the other side of things?

* Apologies in advance if this attempt at humor has gone awry: I’m having an off day.


  1. I would wash my hands vigorously before hand, and then shake hands as usual. If I had to blow my nose, or cough into my hand, I would then go wash my hands, and again continue shaking hands as usual. Or, if I were really that sick, I’d skip the function.

    • This.

    • Anonymous :

      This. There should be an option of “Wash my hands before the event and cough into a handkerchief so they stay clean.”

    • Ditto.

    • Agreed

    • How about just don’t go? If you’re sick, why share the germs and put yourself through it…if you *have* to go, make an appearance and just.don’t.shake.hands – bow, do whatever, but don’t share the germs, which handshaking most assuredly will do, no matter how much purell is in circulation!

      not meant to be ‘beyootchy’, just a survivor of a multiperson, multikid household that went thru months of H1N1 last year and hopes not to do it again this year :).

    • I also take hand sanitizer with me in my purse, that way if I can’t make it to the bathroom to wash my hands after I blow my nose or cough, I can immediately apply the hand sanitizer.

  2. I was in a meeting last year with a consultant we had flown in and she said she was only doing fist bumps, no hand shakes. Everyone laughed at the time, but I thought it was odd to fist bump in a professional setting. That said, I’d rather fist bump that get H1N1 which was her reason for not shaking hands (she didn’t have H1N1 but was being cautious).

    • Oh, and I would shake hands but wash them vigorously before the event and carry my pocket hand sanitizer spray to use every few interactions. If I was really sick (H1N1 or really bad flu) I would skip the event.

  3. Anon for this :

    I am in the middle of this right now. Being sick at work (at least in biglaw) is unwinnable. Every time I cough, I get filthy looks from colleagues for bringing my germs to work (I did stay home for several days in the beginning “contagious” phase, which is probably just a myth…). Yet I can assure you that the very same glarers would be throwing a fit if I actually did try to work from home until I fully recovered.

    On the handshake, I have spent this recruiting season scrubbing my hands before I go to meet an interview candidate and then being very careful not to touch my face/only cough into my elbow until we do the farewell-shake. It’s awkward as can be, but it’s the best thing I’ve come up with. I figure that anyone particularly offended by this will be washing their hands afterward anyways.

    • Ugh, I have so been there. Last winter, my (blessedly former) biglaw firm sent around a very strongly worded email about how you should not come to work if you have a fever. But then if you dared to actually stay home from work sick, they went out of their way to torture you with calls and emails requiring immediate responses, followed by follow-up emails 3 minutes later re: why you hadn’t responded to the previous email yet. Moral of the story: associates should not get fevers.

    • Oh, I hear you here. We have sick days “at manager discretion” which is awesome, except that they didn’t tell me until the end of the year that they felt I’d had “extensive absences” (it happens when your gallbladder fails, you get the flu, viral bronchitis, and exposed to H1N1 with a mandatory 3 day absence all in one year!).
      So this year, I’ve been really being careful, and have only been sick once, but I came back with sniffles and got a ton of hissing and spitting about it. It’s ridiculous!

      At Comicon they started doing the Iron Guard salute instead of handshakes.

  4. I always beg off handshakes, and even stand further away in a room from people, if I’m sick. And frankly, I’ve never felt it awkward. It takes a little bit of aggressive intervention to break up the standard routine, but I think it actually helps build rapport and trust.

  5. Personally, I would appreciate someone NOT shaking my hand if they were sick! I have three small kids, and the last thing I need is some awful-ness being brought home! I do think the example above with the consultant not shaking hands when nobody was sick a bit extreme and strange. But again, if you are obviously sporting a cold, I do not want to shake your hand!

    • Agree! It’s a courtesy not to spread your germs all over the place if you know you are contagious!!

    • Yep. I’m a 3L, and we have a very strongly worded policy at my school. If you are sick, think you are sick, or might be sick, then you stay home, period. No one else wants to suffer because you decided to brave class for the day and spread around your germs.

      Luckily, there’s a standing policy that if you are out for any sickness related reason, you can get a copy of the lecture from the professor that day, with no hassle at all. It completely takes away the incentive of coming into class if you are actually sick, and means for a healthier student body.

      • Easier in the law school context than the law firm context. No one suffers but you if you don’t show for class. Often, if you don’t show for the meeting/document review session/etc, someone else has to pick up your work. I get that it’s a bad idea generally, but still come to work sick with some regularity.

        • Oh I completely agree with you. Perhaps I didn’t get my point across very eloquently: You can’t expect people to stay away when they’re sick when there will be consequences for not coming in.

          • Yeah, at my law school most classes were podcast or you could make a day-of request to podcast the class, so staying home sick was no big deal, you could just watch the lecture later. We even have a parents room where you can stay with your kids and watch the class as it happens. Not real life applicable so much, but it was great in that context.

  6. Disgusting conversation. Next, please.

    • A-non-lawyer :

      You don’t have to read it?

    • So, I guess that means a thread-jack about potty training woes would be off-side then, hmm? Ok, I won’t hit submit on that one. ;)

    • Does that mean we should or should not warn you when shaking your hand while sick?

      • Oh, just stop it.

        From a devoted reader and regular commenter/member of this community – now that I am firewalled during the day, I totally do not want to scroll through ridiculous *ridiculous* snarkfests that can be had at all hours on some other site…do it somewhere else and leave the Corporette sisterhood out of your nonsense. We don’t have time for it. Sorry!

  7. Even if I’m not sick and I sneeze, I apologize and explain that I just sneezed. I usually say something like “Oh I’m sorry I can’t shake your hand. I just sneezed and I don’t want to give you my germs.”

  8. Personally, I would respect it and not think twice.

    First, it’s not a terrible thing for someone to not want to get their neighbors sick – although I agree with earlier posters that if you were really contagious, you should probably stay home if possible!

    Second, you may not know the whole reason for their refusal to shake hands. I have had friends/ acquaintances that have been very ill (e.g. cancer or other equally serious disease) where their immune systems were compromised making them very vulnerable. They would not shake hands or do any unnecessary touching. I can definitely see someone in a similar situation who is not visibly ill perhaps phrasing their refusal to shake hands in a such manner that does not require them to explain a very personal condition.

  9. I have never encountered anyone doing this. My initial reaction is that if I went to shake someone’s hand and they refused, saying they were sick, my interaction with them would be fully tainted with “eww, this person is sick. Sick sick sick. All I can see is germs.”

    If I have to shake hands with a bunch of people, I go wash my hands later and don’t touch my face in the meantime. It’s kind of like holding the bar on the subway – a necessary evil that requires handwashing later.

  10. I can’t believe this is actually a question – let alone a conversation!

    Didn’t we all learn in kindergarten to keep our germs to ourselves??

    • Clearly its a question people have and are curious to hear from others about. If you dont’ want to participate, feel free to skip the comments.

    • Anonymous :

      Can’t you keep your germs to yourself by using a kleenex when you cough?

  11. Longtime lurker and new poster here! As someone who keeps hand sanitizer always at the ready, I decline handshakes when sick, saying “I’m a bit under the weather and wouldn’t want to get you sick” with a smile. I would certainly appreciate if others provided the same courtesy.

  12. Chicago K :

    I went to a graduation last year where the dean announced there would be no shaking of hands with diplomas due to the risk of H1N1 transmission.

    I know at least a few here are doctors, so maybe they can speak to exactly how the flu is transmitted and how to reduce your risk. I thought it was transmitted via respitory secretions that you then inhale or rub into your eyes. I would think washing hands, avoiding touching your face, sneezing into your elbow, etc would be a good way to avoid transmitting anything – even if one of the handshakers is sick.

    I personally try to avoid going out when I am sick (yes, not always possible) and wash my hands like crazy. I would probably still shake hands feeling confident they were clean and not wanting to confuse the situation with a hand shake refusal.

    I try to wash my hands like crazy after shaking hands anyway. It may or may not prevent sickness but it makes me feel better!

    • The Dean refused handshaking at the ceremony because of the “risk” of transmission?? Now that’s just silly. If he or someone at the ceremony had H1N1, then they shouldn’t be there.
      At my law school graduation, they had someone walking down the line of graduates waiting to go on stage squirting sanitizer into each person’s hands.

      • Chicago K :

        Yep – it was announced at the beginning of a very large (undergrad & grad school) ceremony I attended last year. They handed diplomas and smiled and that was it.

        I thought it was funny too and people snickered when they announced it.

  13. I was in a meeting about two weeks ago with people I hadn’t seen in months and new people (so lots of handshaking all around) but I didn’t shake anyone’s hands, letting them know I was sick. They weren’t expecting me to say it but there was no awkwardness. In retrospect, I’m very happy I didn’t, because I, unfortunately, got two of my coworkers sick (shared paperwork).

  14. Same as others: Wash hands before hand-shaking-event and during it after every cough/sneeze/nose blowing. Shake hands as normal. If I’m really really sick, stay home.

  15. On handshake substitutes: I once offered a new acquaintance my hand, only to have him clasp my upper arm, great me warmly, and then apologize for not shaking my hand on account of illness. I was thrown at first, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. It introduced physical contact without spreading germs or being in any way inappropriate.

    I generally find the immediate use of hand sanitizer or the refusal to shake hands on medical or even religious grounds to be off-putting, even though I know the person is being courteous and not trying to offend. The ritual of the handshake is so ingrained that any refusal feels as though we were all in junior high again and I’ve been deemed socially toxic. Irrational and silly, but there it is.

    • Greet, not great. Sigh.

    • Agree! I am turned off by people, especially women, who are afraid to shake hands. We get so many germs anyway just from being outside.

  16. Stay home if you’re really sick and otherwise wash hands frequently and use hand sanitizer. In a work setting, informing others that you’re ill creates the impression that you’re not in top form; never a comforting thing for the client you are about to represent in court, the witness whose deposition you’re about to defend, or frankly any client who is paying a high hourly rate for your services. In a social/networking setting, it raises the question why you are there in the first place.

  17. I try to wash my hands often and all that, and if I was really sick I would stay home.
    BUT we have all gotten waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too germaphobic, IMO. All that purell is only making people more sick, allergic, etc., b/c our immune systems are just not as well equipped to fight off minor harmless toxins as they used to be.
    Medical studies in this area all support the notion that a little bit of germs is not just okay, but actually good for you. Obviously, colds & flu are different, but reading the above (fistbump lady, e.g.,), it seems like some of the germaphobia has gotten way out of control. I have several doctors and nurses in my family and they never get sick, work with sick people all day, shake hands with their patients & others in the hospital, all while much better immune systems then most — they just wash they’re hands as needed and don’t worry too much about the rest.

    • Agreed, the only time I declined to shake hands was when I came down with an eye infection while I was on a recruiting trip. I wasn’t sick but the doctor said there was a risk of passing it by hand shaking so I gave a quick explanation and made an attempt to joke about it to avoid the awkwardness of the student with his/her hand extended. Not a big deal. But without the doctor’s specific instruction I would probably have just washed my hands a lot and with the usual cold or whatever, if I’m well enough to be out, I’m well enough to shake hands.

    • Totally agree!

    • I couldn’t agree more. What really annoys me is that people think Purell is some sort of miracle potion, when in fact most hand sanitizers aren’t as effective against some bacteria as plain old soap and water (or even just plain water). My dad is a doctor and rarely gets sick. When he was younger, I don’t remember him getting sick at all some years.

      I do agree with those who say that it’s sometimes inevitable that you’ll have to go to work while sick. I worked at one place around 10 years ago that gave 3 sick days a year and 3 personal days (which I don’t think could be used for doctor’s appointments). If you got sick, you pretty much had no choice but to stay there miserable for days on end. It amazes me that any company would think that amount of sick time could help productivity.

    • Exactly! Not to mention that you’re killing good bacteria too. Also, the alcohol actually allows for greater absorption of other chemicasl. For example, it’s recently been reported that most receipts have bpa on them (not a big deal for most consumer, but perhaps problematic for people handing them out all day). Put one of those alchol-based “germ killers” on your hands and that bpa gets into your system much more easily.
      Just wash your hands and take care of yourself–for the most part, your immune system can handle the rest.

  18. I stay home if I’m sick (like today, for instance!). If I’m at a mtg where someone else is sick I try to wash my hands right after and also not touch my face (very hard!).

  19. Anonymous :

    Doesn’t anyone use Kleenex or hankies? If I have a cold, or during allergy season, I have Kleenex in my purse. I cannot imagine canceling an oral argument or trial because I might sneeze.

    • Well – if its just sneezing, you can observe proper sneezing procedure.*
      Tissue still runs the risk of contaminating your hands (sneezing thru it) and hankies just become a mass of germs as they get reused.

      Just a thought.

      *sneezing into your shoulder or the crook of your elbow – avoids contaminating the hands or propelling the germs into the air and allows the germs to dry out on your clothes and become un-germy

      • Anonymous :

        Okay, you asked for it: what if you blow out icky stuff onto your sleeve? That is just gross!

        • Uh – wipe it off? The technique is really about avoiding germ spreading, not booger catching. In my experience, productive sneezes are a smaller percentage than the non-productive ones, but YMMV.

  20. Why wouldn’t you just wash your hands/santize them before shaking/going into a meeting? As long as you keep your hands away from your mouth you should be okay.

    • Exactly! It’s not like the cold virus normally resides on your hands—it just gets transferred there from your nose or mouth. Clean hands don’t spread germs, so just wash them and keep them clean.

      Refusing a handshake is like saying “I care about not spreading germs enough to make an awkward scene here, but not enough to have actually washed my hands after blowing my nose.”

      • This. Yes.

        To be honest, I feel kind of gross when someone won’t shake my hand because they’re sick — uncomfortably conscious of the presence of germs, unsure just how sick we’re talking, and wondering: if they are too sick and germ-covered to shake my hand, aren’t they also too sick and germ-covered to sit next to me, pass me a piece of paper, hand me a bottle of water?

  21. Slightly off topic: how about using medication at a meeting?
    I have a colleague who suffers asthma and would ALWAYS have “minor” attacks during meetings because of stress. He would always leave the room to use his inhaler and come back.
    I just think it’s OK to use an inhaler during a meeting/interview/presentation.
    What do you think? excuse yourself or just use it in front of colleagues/boss?

    • I’m asthmatic, and pulling out my inhaler and puffing during a meeting would make me feel uncomfortable. All eyes on me and lots of “are you alright?” and required explanations. Plus just the awkward way I must look blowing all the air out of my lungs, inhaling very deeply then holding that breath for as long as possible while everyone stares.

      Trust me, I get this all the time in non-work settings when I use my inhaler (as discreetly as possible) and people see me and want to know if I’m dying or if they should call 911 or find a place for me to rest.

    • legalicious07 :

      Another asthmatic weighing in. Unless I was truly one breath away from croaking, I would never pull out my inhaler in a meeting and use it in front of everyone. Although I think an inhaler is different in kind and degree than say, mere makeup or even OTCs, I would take care of all such personal needs in private.

    • Anon today :

      I take 4 pills 4 times a day for a digestive disorder. I will discreetly pull them out of my purse, turn my back to the table, pop em, and gulp. It is usually obvious that I am taking a medication but w/ my back turned they are less likely to see that I am taking four horse pills and get curious.

      I also take dairy aid pills before meals and I am not shy about taking those in front of clients, etc. I wouldn’t at an interview unless there was no possible way to avoid the dairy.

      I have a diabetic coworker and he will inject himself while talking to people like it is no big deal.

      • I had a client who would regularly take her blood sugar in meetings and often make a big production out of it. I know it is important to do and has to be done. But looking at blood and needles every time we met made me absolutely sick to my stomach and dizzy. I wanted to excuse myself but obviously couldn’t. I used to absoutlely dread any time I had to see her. I feel bad saying that and can’t imagine how difficult it must be on her end. But is it really necessary to do in front of others?

    • I’d use my inhaler if I truly needed to in an emergency, but otherwise, I’d prefer to keep my medical needs private so I’d excuse myself.

    • Big Firm Lawyer :

      When you’re working 80-hour weeks on a big case, pretty much anything goes. I had a co-worker who would whip out her syringe, pull up her shirt, and give herself insulin injections when we all sat down for our endless breakfast/lunch/dinner/midnight pizza meetings. I don’t think anyone really cared, we got inured to it. Or maybe we were just exhausted.

    • Chicago K :

      As an asthmastic, I also don’t use my inhaler in “public.” I either have to be in a private office or I excuse myself to go to the bathroom and use it. If there are others in the bathroom, I go into the stall and then, well, I don’t care if they hear it.

      I also am not a fan of blowing one’s nose in public – I also go to the bathroom for that.

      I did have a diabetic coworker who would do the insulin in the stomach thing after lunches. But we were in the car, so I figured I was a bit more privy than if we’d still been in a public setting.

      In general, mucus disgusts me way more than blood, and I think these things vary from person to person – you never know who will be offended or who won’t care. Best to ask or just keep those things private.

      As far as the pill taking, if I have an obvious cold I will pop a pill in a meeting. But if it’s some other medication I take, I would turn around and be discreet. People tend to ask you what you are taking, are you ok, etc and I personally think it’s none of their business.

  22. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to get you sick.”

    “THANK YOU!”

    I can’t imagine anything awkward about that.

  23. What bizarre timing! Second day of my new job today (hello real world!) and I went to visit a client with my boss and the woman working in the client’s office said “Sorry, I’d shake your hand but I’m sick.” I didn’t even think anything of it, and here comes this post. haha.

    • This!

      Hi fresh jd! Hope you don’t get sick, seriously :)! And, if you didn’t catch my earlier post to you (on the n/m cardigan thing, i think – now that i’m firewalled during the day, it’s all a blur). Hope things are going well at the new job and that you had a good time in mia (where there are a gazillion migratory germs, in case you wanna go paranoid).

      • Are you guys friends in real life? I’ve told so many people about corporette I bet I have a friend on here somewhere!

        • Suze: Didn’t see your last post to me, but thanks Miami was good. I also took day trips to Naples, West Palm Beach and Boca. Loved all of them, and seem ok with the germs *knock on wood*. Started work this Monday, it’s hard being new, but so far so good. I’m still trying to gauge the dress code…the men wear full suits to meet clients, but I haven’t seen any of the women go to meet anyone yet.

          Newy: Nope Suze and I never met in real life, but we are kindred corporettes :)

  24. I recruit for a law firm now, but am a former lawyer. When I was a student going through the recruiting season, I developed a cold. I declined to shake the hand of a lawyer interviewing me. He reacted favorably, and after extending me the callback, told me how appreciative he was of my gesture on campus. As a recruiter on the opposite side now – I am extremely appreciative of a similar gesture from students. Washing hands often doesn’t catch all the germs, and the moment is not at all awkward for me.

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