If In Doubt, DON’T Hug It Out: What’s OK In the Workplace?

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Photo by Susan Post

While #MeToo has certainly (and appropriately) heightened our awareness of workplace issues, the most debated question in harassment training has long been: “Is it OK to hug my coworker?” The debate never gets easier, in part because different people have different hugging norms whether at or away from work, and in part because the right answer varies depending on the hugger and huggee.

Let me try to set out a few guidelines, some hopefully intuitive to all readers, some maybe less so but based on experience helping employers sort out these issues – which normally happens when a hugger and one or more huggees do not share the same answer to the question.

Insight No. 1: The only opinion that matters is the huggee’s.  If this is news to you, please call me for a free tutorial. While some readers may correctly point out that a single hug is almost certainly not actionable harassment under the law, it can certainly be part of an unlawfully hostile environment. Also, people are also less productive if subjected to unwanted touching.

Finally, a dictionary that is famous for lawyers defines criminal battery as “a physical act that results in harmful or offensive contact with another person without that person’s consent.” Hmm.

In short, if the huggee does not want to be hugged, one way or another it’s wrong.

Insight No. 2: Huggers often do not correctly guess a huggee’s welcomeness to a hug. Fine, you may say, you get and agree with No. 1. You only hug people at work who don’t mind being hugged. She doesn’t mind.

You may be right sometimes. No employer ever calls me if you are right. But plenty of employers have called me when you are wrong. All evidence tells us that huggers do not always correctly ascertain if a huggee wants to be hugged. None of us, huggers or otherwise, are mind readers, and there are many reasons a huggee may not tell you she does not want to be hugged.

Insight No. 3: Male supervisors guess wrong most often. I can’t prove this. But experience and reading lots of court decisions and other sources tells me I’m right. Certainly not all, but the great majority of reported examples of unwanted hugging appear to be male supervisors hugging female coworkers.  

Why is this? Several reasons come to mind. One, people are less likely to tell a supervisor to cut it out. An organization’s goal should be to enable a way to express such a concern, but nobody has perfected that yet.

The male part? In part, historically more males are supervisors. More than that? I will leave that to each reader to make your own conclusions.

We can make this simple for any male managers out there: you can assume that none of the employees working for you want to be hugged by you, and you will almost always be right. The very few (if any) employees for whom you are wrong will be OK without your hug, and every other employee will appreciate it.

“Bill, I grew up in a hugging family, and I’m a warm guy.” Well, this isn’t your family. And yes, I think you can be plenty warm towards your coworkers without touching them.

“You are making us all into robots.” I get it. It is hard to know where the lines are sometimes, and plenty of good people can make an honest mistake with what they say or do. Healthy organizations should understand that and nudge all of us in good directions on many topics, not just hugging. You can exercise due caution in your assumptions about the welcomeness of hugs (or risqué jokes, or compliments on apparel, or…) without being a robot.

(By the way, you know you never makes the “turning us into robots” comment? Unwilling huggees.)

I can’t hug my coworker when she gets married, or perhaps on the occasion of the death of a loved one?” OK, I will give you this one most of the time. Because on those rare occasions, a simple hug probably is welcome for most people.

Which gets us back to our point: it is OK only if it is welcome, and the truth is you don’t know when it’s welcome. So I propose it is best to assume it is not welcome almost all of the time, and demonstrate admiration, respect, and support for your coworkers in other ways.

This article should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult your own lawyer on any specific legal questions you may have concerning your situation.

Barnes & Thornburg LLP is a large, full-service law firm that seeks to take a more entrepreneurial and cost-effective approach both to client service and its own business.

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