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Is it OK to hug people at work?

Girl Scouts tell parents it's a bad idea to teach children they owe someone a hug as a thank-you
Sexual harassment in the workplace
An MLA in the Yukon, who was also speaker of the house, hugged and kissed a woman without her consent - and a court ruled it wasn't sexual assault or even common assault. Shutterstock.com

By Todd Humber

Is it still OK to hug people in the workplace? That question has bubbled to the surface in many HR departments in the wake of the long overdue, searing spotlight on sexual harassment.

Maybe it’s my anglo-saxon sensibilities, but I’m not much of a hugger. Generally, I only hug close friends or people I have a strong connection with — which means, in most cases, I’m not doling out physical contact very often in the workplace.

My partner, on the other hand, will hug pretty much anything that moves. She’s Greek, and in Greece — I’ve come to learn — hugs and kissing on the cheek are doled out like handshakes.

No judgment from these quarters on which greeting is better, but no doubt a handshake is less fraught with danger than a hug in the current climate. In the United States, the Girl Scouts posted an interesting article for parents titled, “Reminder: She doesn’t owe anyone a hug. Not even at the holidays.”

“Telling your child that she owes someone a hug either just because she hasn’t seen this person in a while or because they gave her a gift can set the stage for her questioning whether she ‘owes’ another person any type of physical affection when they’ve bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life,” the article states.

They quote a psychologist who points out that the lessons a girl learns when she is young about “setting boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime, and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older.”

Hugs are OK, the Girl Scouts say, as long as they’re not forced. It points out there are many other ways to show appreciation and love, including:

  • Saying you’ve missed someone
  • Thank you with a smile
  • High-five
  • Air kiss

I remember, as a child, being forced to hug and kiss everyone good night before going to bed. This included any guests my parents had over, and on nights with a party it could take a while to wind my way to bed. I never understood why I had to do this — probably the introvert in me — but it was important to my parents, so I never questioned it.

Whether a hug meets the definition of sexual harassment is, unsurprisingly, a rather grey area. Last year, a Territorial Court of Yukon judge ruled that hugs and kisses — unlike unwanted touching of the breasts or genitals — could fall into categories ranging from “overtly sexual” to “entirely familial.”

That case involved David Laxton, an MLA and speaker of the Yukon legislature. He had met a woman who worked at a restaurant in Whitehorse, and ran into her one day at her job as a cashier at a grocery store. She expressed frustration at her job, said she was thinking about quitting and he gave her his business card and said he might be able to get her a job with the government.

She called him and came to his office to discuss employment. Upon leaving, Laxton gave her a hug and kissed her on the lips without her consent. They left the office and walked together to the public foyer of the building, and he again hugged and kissed her.

“Almost without exception, an unwanted touching of a female’s genital, breasts or anal region would be considered sexual assault,” the judge wrote. “A hug, on the other hand, is much more equivocal. A kiss, especially one on the lips may stray much closer to the line, but still, much depends on the surrounding circumstances. The context may be overtly sexual at one end of the spectrum or entirely familial at the other.”

At trial, Laxton testified he is in the habit of hugging and kissing female friends. Witnesses confirmed he was a “physically demonstrative man.”

In the end, the court said his behaviour was “unwise, even foolish, especially for a man in his position.” But it said the conduct was not sexual assault, citing the fact the parties were familiar with each other.

I have some issues with that ruling, and I suspect the tide has turned so much in the past year that we may indeed see a different result with the same facts in front of a judge today. The Crown lamented that the court refused to even convict Laxton of common assault, stating it would be declaring “open season” on women or would be fostering an assumption that “women are walking around in perpetual state of consent.”

The question of whether or not it’s a good idea to hug someone at work remains an open question. It is a very grey area, and some employers have taken the safe route and banned hugging completely. That might be a tad draconian.

But as a general rule, don’t hug strangers and new acquaintances. This may sound sexist, but if you’re a man perhaps you shouldn’t be the one to initiate the hug. And if you’re not 100 per cent certain your hug will be welcome and appreciated, just offer your hand instead.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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