Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula, responds to stories of “forced hugging” at Ted Baker with an explainer for employers on hugging at work in a sexual harassment context.
Shares in Ted Baker have hit a three-year low after allegations of “forced hugging” about the fashion group’s founder and boss, Ray Kelvin. The company has insisted hugs are “part of Ted Baker’s culture, but are absolutely not insisted upon” so is hugging at work considered sexual harassment?
Whilst some people are naturally more tactile than others and are happy to take part in a celebratory hug at work, or even a daily hug to say good morning, others are less so inclined. A workplace culture which involves hugging may be an uncomfortable environment for the latter.
2 pivotal points to consider
The answer to the question is that yes, hugging could be considered sexual harassment where it is unwanted conduct related to sex. Employers should remember that two points are particularly pivotal to the determination of harassment: 1) the complainant’s individual perception of the behaviour is very important i.e. just because one person doesn’t feel harassed by a hug doesn’t mean that another person shouldn’t, 2) the intention of the one who instigates the hug is not. “I didn’t mean it as harassment” is no excuse to being perceived as such.
Employers who promote hugging, or who themselves see hugging as a way of making a connection with employees or building trust with them should be careful of a culture of ‘forced’ hugs, where an employee does not want to partake but fears the consequences of a refusal.
Being surprised today that a powerful billionaire harassed the women who worked for him is like being shocked about once beloved 70s entertainment icons actually turning out to be horrendous sex abusers.
It can be difficult for employers to gauge an employee’s stance on hugging because it may be influenced by the context; colleagues who have an enduring friendly relationship may be happy to embrace each other when one is about to depart on 2 weeks’ leave.
The same employee may feel extremely awkward with a hug from someone they are less familiar with. Tolerance for being in such close bodily proximity to another is, therefore, a very personal thing and wires may become crossed. It is important to consider body language and certainly to listen to employees who tell you a handshake will do.
However well-meaning it may be, a hug may be considered too long, too tight or just too much and the focus on an individual’s perception, in a legal determination over whether harassment has taken place, means that there is a significant scope for employers to trip up.
Banning hugging in the workplace may not be the answer but an environment where employees feel they must hug to feel ‘part of the team’ is not, either.
Kate Palmer is associate director of advisory at Peninsula
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