Good intentions, bad feelings

Friendly personal relationships at work can be nice, but workplace boundaries are different from regular socializing

By Jeffrey R. Smith

There’s a saying that the world needs more hugs. That may be true, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to the workplace.

People who work together often develop personal relationships, sometimes as friends and sometimes even romantically. However, everyone has a different perspective on the boundaries between workplace relationships and personal relationships and this line can get a little blurry. Employers must be careful not to go too far over the line or they can face serious complaints, regardless of the intentions of those involved.

Employees usually like a friendly boss, as it can lead to a more relaxed atmosphere in the workplace and a co-operative environment, especially in a team environment. But in a recent British Columbia case, a friendly boss who tried to encourage positive energy in his employees took it too far.

An owner of two retail carts in Victoria hired two teenage sisters to work at one of the carts in the summer of 2008. The owner had some new-age beliefs related to Reiki, a Japanese spiritual practice that dealt with healing energy. He often talked about this philosophy to his employees and customers and displayed healing crystals at the cart.

The owner often tried to purify the cart of negative energy and offer positive energy at the beginning of the workday by hugging the two girls in extended hugs, sometimes lasting up to 10 seconds. However, the hugs made the girls uncomfortable and, even though one of them said so, he insisted on continuing the practice.

The girls filed a successful complaint of sexual harassment. The employer may have genuinely been trying to create a positive environment according to his beliefs, but he should have recognized the possibility his employees wouldn’t see it that way, particularly after one of them expressed her discomfort. For him, perhaps a hug was just a hug, but for his workers, his status as a boss (not to mention a significant age difference) made it uncomfortable.

What if a similar situation happened between co-workers or a manager and direct report that had a mutual friendship? If they were usually comfortable enough with each other that they had frequent physical contact such as hugging, is there a risk of sexual harassment if one individual suddenly changes her mind on what’s appropriate? Sexual harassment includes unwanted touching, but should there be some leeway if it involves a co-worker giving an unwanted hug with good intentions?

However, good intentions may not be a saving grace if it should have been obvious the actions would be unwelcome. Sometimes it’s just safe to recognize the boundaries in the workplace are a little different than outside it.

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit

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