Is Hugging at Work Considered Sexual Harassment?

is cuddling at work sexual harrassment

When fashion chain, Ted Baker, hit the news last year among stories of ‘forced hugging’, it’s likely that many businesses across the country began to look at how practices in their own organisation’s culture may be received by its staff.

And the key question many business owners will be asking is, can hugging at work constitute sexual harassment?

More than 60 Ted Baker employees complained about the behaviour of Ray Kelvin, the founder, who is said to have engaged in forced hugging as well as other behaviour such as massaging employees’ shoulders.

The problem that stems from stories such as this, which can be a tricky one for businesses to navigate, is whether an organisation’s culture, or types of behaviour that it considers to be the norm, actually crosses the line into harassment.

The truth is that while, on the surface, a hug may seem a harmless greeting or act of celebration from the ‘hug-giver’, the crux of its treatment is dictated by the perception of the ‘hug-receiver’. If the person receiving the hug does not want to engage in the embrace, this trumps any benign intention from the person initiating it.

Definition of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment will occur where an individual is subjected to unwanted conduct related to sex which has the purpose or effect of violating their dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

It will also arise where there is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has this purpose or effect, or where a person is treated less favourably because they have rejected, or submitted to, conduct of a sexual nature.

There is no further list which defines the type of conduct which can be classed as harassment and therefore an employee would be able to claim that hugging falls within the scope of unwanted conduct. If the unwanted conduct is related to the person’s gender, then it becomes harassment.

Forms of sexual harassment

The more common interpretation of harassment may include instances of name calling or the sharing of inappropriate photos around the office etc.

Arguably, some people may draw a line between this type of behaviour and hugging because you may say it’s easier to conclude that name-calling etc may cause offence to another and therefore be considered to be unwanted. Hugging, however, is far less likely to be considered as having a negative connotation.

But this is exactly where the issue lies. You cannot assume that someone is happy to be given a genuinely well intended hug to celebrate an important sales deal just because you would see no problem in being on the receiving end.

Tolerance for being in such close bodily proximity to another is a very personal thing and everyone will have their own individual feelings on it. Whilst not for others, it will be unwanted conduct for some and this must be respected, especially because it could be at the centre of a subsequent employment tribunal claim.

Difficulties for businesses

Because everyone will feel differently about it, and because questions about ‘hug preference’ are not likely to feature on any job application form, it can be difficult for employers to gauge an employee’s stance on hugging.

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. 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.

“I didn’t mean to cause offence, I just got taken in by the moment” will not stand as a defence to claims of harassment. It does not matter what the intention was; it is the perception which matters.

Making employees aware of what is appropriate

So how do businesses navigate this minefield? Is a complete ban on hugging the answer? Probably not. Being more aware of the ways in which harassment can occur through training is more likely to be the appropriate way to ensure that harassment does not take place in your organisation.

Employees should be made aware that they should not judge acceptable behaviour on what they personally consider to be permissible, and consider that other people may feel differently.

Complaints about unwanted hugging should be taken seriously by employers if they are to implement any anti-harassment policies in place. Again, whilst a manager who is dealing with a grievance regarding unwanted hugging may personally feel it has no substance because they are a ‘happy hugger’, they should remember that it is the individual perception of the complainant that should be considered and set aside their personal feelings.

About the author

This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Peter Done, Managing Director of Peninsula Business Services – the UK’s leading specialist Employment Law, HR and Health & Safety service. Peter has written a series of employment guides for ByteStart, which include;

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