Touch in the workplace is a major issue. Sexual harassment claims are sweeping the globe from Hollywood to the Houses of Parliament, doctors being advised not to hug patients (in case it results in legal action), and the #Metoo campaign continues to attract huge support. So, against that backdrop, the idea of hugging at work seems problematic.
Is it better, then, to avoid all contact (so no one is uncomfortable or distressed) or does a celebratory team hug when you win a pitch or a sympathetic squeeze to an upset colleague still have its place? We asked workplace experts for their views…
Marisa Colbourn, managing director of Believe HR says…
“This is such a tough one. I’m a very ‘huggy’ person and it just comes naturally to me, especially if someone is sad, or I want to congratulate them, or we’ve had a really successful meeting. However, when I deliver harassment training, it’s tricky because of course we want to ensure that our employees aren’t subjected to bullying, discrimination or harassment. But at the same time, there are aspects of how we interact as human beings that people feel they now have to suppress.
Of course, there is a line of professionalism to be respected and there are clear examples of where ‘hugging’ would be deemed inappropriate on any level. And it could be argued simply being a worker, colleague, or customer is indeed the definitive line in itself. Nonetheless, I have also witnessed many examples of where a less formal approach, including ‘hugging’ has been extremely beneficial.
For example, a line manager hugging a team member, who was in tears when explaining challenging personal circumstances that may have affected their job and colleagues hugging after resolving a conflict or congratulating each other on a promotion.
I agree that there are many other ways to express all of the above in the workplace, and I’m not suggesting that ‘hugging’ be the default means of communication! However, it is often raised to me as part of my sessions that we are indeed adults and should be able to make a decision about when a ‘hug’ may be received well serving its purpose and when it’s not.
But there is a clear distinction between ‘unwanted physical contact,’ abuse of power, sexual misconduct or blatant intentional harassment and a sincere, well-meaning general hug. So, aren’t we potentially doing more damage by completely discouraging respectful, appropriate instinctive interactions?”
Suzanne McKie QC, Farore Law says:
“In my 25 years as a lawyer in this field, I can remember a Partner in a law firm who was well known for keeping the air conditioning up high. This was so that junior female lawyers would have erect nipples (I kid you not). He would also tend to ask questions about work load and follow through with a hug if the worker appeared stressed.
Another case I remember involved a female manager whose hugs of male members of staff lingered just a bit too long. I can also remember a disabled member of staff who complained that the hugs amounted to patronising treatment because she was in a wheelchair. Why do some people regard hugs as being a great response? It perplexes me. Not least for the legal risks.
Subject to an employee holding a highly unreasonable view of the events in question, Employment Tribunals considering a harassment claim will focus on the perspective of the alleged victim. A key part of the definition of harassment in the Equality Act is that it is unwanted conduct which has the purpose “or effect” of creating an intimidating or humiliating or hostile environment or violating the worker’s dignity – as such even if the hugger did not intend this outcome he or she may still be found liable.
It will be relatively easy for the claimant to prove the act was unwanted, and that it had the effect stated above, depending on the reaction and his/her own behaviour in the workplace. Providing some evidence that it relates to a protected characteristic will be harder. However, the second part of the definition of harassment includes where the alleged perpetrator engages in unwanted conduct of “a sexual nature” which has the purpose or effect referred to above – in the absence of a relevant protected characteristic this may be easier to prove. And we should not forget civil claims, whether brought under the Protection from the Harassment Act or otherwise.
But is it also just too easy to hug and think your job is done.
In my opinion it is of far greater use to provide sympathetic words, words of support and practical help. Too many workers find themselves isolated such as when they raise an internal grievance (and none of his/her colleagues are willing to accompany them to the grievance hearing or provide evidence in support) or where they are suffering a serious illness.
Hugs can appear like superficial acts from people who don’t really want to get involved. Even if colleagues don’t want to cause problems for themselves by overtly supporting the victim who’s raised a complaint that does not stop them assisting in other ways, such as helping them to recraft their CV, offering to speak to the relevant manager on a neutral basis, or helping them with their application to move into a different team.
With a serious illness why not ask the employee what assistance they need with their work; what help they need with any PHI application or claim for other benefits; or assist with any application to work from home during treatment? Deeds, not words they say. I say pick your deeds carefully and make them count.”
Nicola Banning, a counsellor who specialises in mental health at work and a member of the BACP Workplace Executive Committee, says:
“To an extent, it depends on the workplace culture. It’s a bit like how in some places, it’s OK to wear jeans, in others, it’s not. In some workplaces, hugging will be appropriate within the culture of the organisation or generally in the industry.
The crucial point here is one of permission. If in doubt, ask. If someone one says no, of course that must be respected and no one should step over the line. However, we are human and many people are grateful for hugs, whether it’s to congratulate them or show our support but before we do, perhaps we just need to ask: “would you like a hug?”
“The strict HR advice would be that this is best avoided. However, in my experience, especially in the European context where there are cultural differences, colleagues from other countries often kiss in greeting and it is much more common to have closer contact in these situations. So overall, my advice would be to act appropriately to the situation, bearing in mind the relationship with the individual and the circumstances (eg Board meeting versus team meeting!)”
Daryl Cowan, owner at DC Employment Solicitors says:
“A man would have to have been in a hermetically sealed bubble for the last 12 months if he were now to even consider hugging a female colleague without being given specific permission from her to do so.”