Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Forced hugs at work sound like a REALLY bad idea

Ray Kelvin, CEO of UK fashion retailer Ted Baker, is a hugger. According to an online petition seeking to end his practice, "he greets many people he meets with a hug, be it a shareholder, investor, supplier, partner, customer or colleague." And, it doesn't stop with hugs. He asks young female employees "to sit on his knee, cuddle him, or let him massage their ears." He strokes employees' ears. He takes off his shirt in the workplace and talks about his sex life. Even worse, when employees go to HR to complain, they are told, "That's just what Ray's like."

Well, they've had enough "of what Ray's like." More than 2,600 people, including over 300 current or former employees, have signed the online petition calling on Ted Baker to "scrap the forced 'hugs' and end harassment."

Let's deal with low hanging fruit, first. Stroking employees ears, talking about your sex life, and walking around work shirtless are all creepy and wrong, period. And, no, HR cannot pass it off as, "Well, you know Ray… 😉" The employer has an absolute duty to investigate and take corrective action to ensure that the harassment stops. And the fact that the alleged harasser is the CEO is not a justification to do nothing. In fact, if #MeToo has taught us anything, it's reason to do more, not less.

As for the hugs, they are a symptom of the larger problem. In a vacuum they might be innocuous, but in this case they are a symptom of a deeper culture of harassment.

Indeed, one person's hug is another's creepy gesture or, worse, inappropriate advance. Where is the workplace line?

In the words of one court:

There are some forms of physical contact which, although unwelcome and uncomfortable for the person touched, are relatively minor. Cumulatively or in conjunction with other harassment, such acts might become sufficiently pervasive to support a hostile environment claim, but if few and far between they typically will not be severe enough to be actionable in and of themselves. A hand on the shoulder, a brief hug, or a peck on the cheek lie at this end of the spectrum. Even more intimate or more crude physical acts—a hand on the thigh, a kiss on the lips, a pinch of the buttocks—may be considered insufficiently abusive to be described as "severe" when they occur in isolation.

On one extreme you have this case, in which an employee was sexually caressed and hugged, and even had fingers poked in his anus through his clothing. Yet, on the other extreme, you have this case, in which a manager hugged a subordinate to lift his spirits during a rough work day.

So, employers, what's the answer? How about some good, ol' fashioned, common sense. If you have a close enough relationship with someone to greet with a hug, then hug it out. If someone complains about your hugs, stop. It's just that simple.

* Photo by ElisaRiva on Pixabay