Help! How to Politely Decline a Handshake in a Job Interview

Photo Credit:  CAPITOL STANDARD  on  Unsplash

Photo Credit: CAPITOL STANDARD on Unsplash

Shaking hands. It’s a customary friendly greeting in Western culture to show respect and professionalism. Anyone going on an interview should anticipate one from all of their interviewers. However, if you don’t shake hands with others, this can pose a challenge. Here’s how you can navigate those situations politely and avoid awkwardness.

Whatever Your Reason, You Don’t Have to Shake Hands

It’s possible you want to avoid the spread of germs for your health or the health of others. Maybe due to your religion you don’t shake hands with members of the opposite sex (the shomer negiah practice of Orthodox Judaism and similar Muslim customs). Some folks on the spectrum may simply feel uncomfortable making physical contact with a stranger.

In the context of the interview, you reason for shaking hands doesn’t matter. You should be able to participate without feeling uncomfortable for your set practices or preferences.  

How to Politely Decline a Handshake

As a rule of thumb, I recommend that in an interview or professional setting, either you shake everyone’s hand or no one’s hand. That means if your religious beliefs prohibit you from shaking hands of people of the opposite gender, don’t shake anyone’s hand. Consistency is key, especially if the interviewers are likely unfamiliar with your observances. By avoiding exclusivity, you keep it polite.

I also recommend informing your point of contact who’s arranging the interview (HR, the hiring manager, a recruiter, etc.) that you will not be shaking hands. You can include it informally in an email, and you do not need to tell them why. This increases the likelihood (but does not guarantee) that the people interviewing you will already be aware at the time of the interview. 

When going into the interview, consider having something like a purse, briefcase, or folder in both hands. By using a “prop,” you can keep your hands full and avoid any awkwardness of having to decline a handshake greeting. 

However, there may be instances when someone unknowingly extends their hands to shake yours. In the moment, directly and concisely decline, and state, "It’s a pleasure to meet you. I do not shake hands."  Declining a handshake isn’t a perfect science–this statement might throw off some or confuse some people, and they may ask you to repeat yourself. Be patient and friendly but know you don’t have to give an explanation. If you’re at a panel discussion, conference, or other large professional event, you might have to repeat yourself several times in short order.

No Handshake, No Pressure

During the interview, you should be focused on the role and your qualifications—not this arbitrary greeting. To help ease any nervousness, practice declining a handshake leading up to your interview. Preparation for these types of scenarios is key so you can be calm, poised, confident in the moment and move gracefully into the interview. Slip ups do happen, so do your best to be kind and patient to alleviate any awkwardness or uncomfortableness if your interviewer makes a mistake or gets confused. Remember, everyone’s just trying to be respectful.

However, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re made to feel uncomfortable about your choice not to shake hands, consider that this role or company isn’t a fit. I always tell my clients to show up as their authentic selves at an interview—that not only means being yourself, it means honoring your own needs, including abstaining from certain social customs. An interview is as much a test for the interviewer as the interviewee, so if you don’t get a good feeling from the reaction to you declining a handshake, keep looking until you find a role where you can be feel accepted.