Is hugging appropriate at work? The answers depends on the circumstances and who is doing the hugging. A quick hug between two friends isn’t against the law (although depending on the company, it may violate a workplace policy). But unwanted hugs and forced hugs, especially from a superior clearly cross the line.
Three hundred workers at fashion chain Ted Baker have signed a petition to end what they call “forced hugging.” Many of those workers blame the company’s founder and CEO, Ray Kelvin. They say Kelvin created a culture that allows sexual harassment to flourish.
According to the petition website,
“The general feeling inside Ted Baker is that there's no official way to address the issue of harassment. That's why we (as staff) are running this campaign. There are a lot of really positive things about working at Ted Baker but they’re often overshadowed by the ‘hugging’ and inappropriate touching and comments. I’ve seen the CEO ask young female members of staff to sit on his knee, cuddle him, or let him massage their ears. I went to HR with a complaint and was told ‘that’s just what Ray’s like’. The owner regularly makes sexual innuendos at staff, he stroke people’s necks, he took off his shirt on one occasion and talked about his sex life. So many people have left the business due to harassment, whether that be verbal, physical or sexual. Pursuing the issue through the 'proper' channels i.e. Human Resources, is hopelessly ineffective. They don't act on the reports. It's time to break the silence.
Thousands of customers have also signed the petition.
Media reports say that Kelvin claims workers can refuse his hugs but that doesn’t make his conduct proper or legal.
Are Hugs at Work Improper?
Hugs at work occupy a gray area of the law. As noted above, not all hugs are illegal.
Whether the behavior is considered harassment depends on the perceptions of the person receiving the hugs. It doesn’t really matter that the person doing the hugging was simply trying to be friendly.
Another variable is the relationship between the parties. Two co-workers of equal stature who are also close friends probably poses no issues. If one is an ex paramour or your boss, the dynamic changes drastically.
Finally, not all hugs are equal! The level of force, the duration, the placement of each person’s hands and the full extent of bodily contact.
Because many workers are afraid to say no to a hug, some companies prohibit hugging in the workplace or forbid hugs between workers and superiors.
Courts often look at these cases and decide whether a reasonable person might find the behavior offensive. The reasonable person standard recognizes that some folks are simply over sensitive. But even in those cases, if the person receiving the hugs makes it clear he or she isn’t comfortable with hugs or other touching, any future hugs could become actionable.
We recommend that if you receive an unwanted hug, tell the person to stop. If it continues, keep a diary and document all the steps you took to make it clear that you find the hugging to be offensive. If it continues, seek legal help. Unwanted touching – including hugs – is illegal. The law allows you to make a claim for damages and obtain other relief.
Continuous hugging or other touching in the workplace could also be grounds for a hostile workplace environment, even if you are not the recipient of the hugs.
California Court Case Sets Boundaries for Workplace Hugs
A female corrections officer in Yolo County filed a hostile workplace claim after saying she received unwanted hugs from her boss. According to her complaint, she was hugged over 125 times during a 13 year period and kissed once on the cheek.
She said that male employees weren’t hugged by her boss and that her complaints were ignored.
The trial court said occasional hugs and kisses on the cheek were not “severe or pervasive enough to establish a hostile work environment.” Instead, they were “merely innocuous, socially acceptable conduct.”
The officer appealed.
On appeal, a three judge panel reversed the trial judge’s dismissal of her claims. They said the court erred when it ruled that the conduct must be both severe and pervasive. The proper standard is severe or pervasive. In other words, the harassment victim must only prove one.
The appeals court said the trial court should have looked at the totality of the circumstances instead of simply tossing her case. Did it matter that the person doing the hugging was the sheriff? Did she tell the sheriff to stop? These were all questions that should have been answered before simply tossing the case.
Workplace Hugging and Disney’s Pixar
Last year Pixar co-founder and Disney’s animation chief John Lassiter left the company after sexual harassment allegations surfaced involving workplace hugging.
In taking leave, Lassiter said:
"I deeply apologise if I have let you down. I especially want to apologise to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted hug or any other gesture they felt crossed the line in any way, shape, or form," Lasseter wrote. "No matter how benign my intent, everyone has the right to set their own boundaries and have them respected."
Are You the Victim of Unwanted Workplace Hugging?
There is a continuum of behaviors that can give rise to sexual harassment and hostile workplace claims. Demands for sexual favors are obviously illegal. But what about placing a hand on one’s shoulder or the occasional hug? These are problematic, particularly in companies that have no written policies. Much depends on the individual circumstances of the hugging.
Any type of unwanted touching can be illegal depending on the circumstances. If someone hugs you and you are not comfortable, ask them to stop. If saying “no” makes you uncomfortable, get HR or a supervisor involved. If it is a supervisor doing the hugging, ask another supervisor, a senior manager of HR to speak to the person involved.
And document, document and document!
Our network of sexual harassment attorneys have the legal experience and investigative resources to help you prove your case and recover financial damages and your dignity. Our lawyers have the experience to go toe-to-toe and take on big companies and their aggressive defense lawyers.
Do you think were harassed at work or by a supervisor or co-worker? Visit our workplace harassment FAQ page for more information. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online or by phone at 877.858.8018. All inquiries are protected by the attorney-client privilege and kept CONFIDENTIAL. (There is never a fee for a consultation. Our legal services are handled on a contingent fee basis meaning no legal fees or costs unless we win.)