National Hugging Day is upon us, which means you may be gearing up for a hugging spree at your workplace. But is it OK -- or even legal -- to hug people at work?
The answer will largely depend on the hugger, the huggee, and your company's hugging culture.
Here are five legal considerations to keep in mind:
- Your company's atmosphere. You may be working in a fun and casual environment in which hugs are encouraged. But some colleagues might not be speaking up about their discomfort with hugs. Also, if there's a tendency to shake hands with men but to hug women, your office may be hugging its way into legal liability for a hostile work environment. So before going in for an embrace, get a feel (not literally) for the person's comfort level and how you're treating different groups of individuals.
- Power imbalances. Bosses are best off not partaking in National Hugging Day. Many employees may feel that they can't rebuff the hugging advances of a boss, making hug-friendly bosses prime targets for sexual harassment lawsuits. As a general rule of thumb, supervisors, managers, and executives should avoid hugging subordinates.
- Inappropriate hugs. From pelvic pressing to embraces that are a bit too tight or last just a little too long, your goal should be to avoid any intimate contact that could be perceived as sexual in nature. Steer clear of any aggressive or passionate hugs -- even ones made in jest. Breathing on a person's neck, pressing tightly into a person's chest, or making contact with someone's lower body are all inappropriate.
- "Safe" hugs. The side hug or quick embrace may be an acceptable way to lock arms. But even a "polite" hug may not be OK, because any unwanted contact can potentially constitute an assault or battery. Read your colleague's body language. If he or she seems hesitant or unwilling to hug (i.e., offers a handshake instead), don't force it.
- Alternatives to hugs. A high-five, a handshake, or a hug -- which is appropriate in the workplace? It ultimately comes down to the specific workplace, the type of hug, and the recipient's feelings about it. Extraordinary circumstances -- leaving the company, receiving a big promotion, or experiencing a personal problem -- may merit a celebratory or consoling hug. But a hearty pat on the back -- or better yet, a warm smile and supportive comments -- may be just as effective.
If a problem should arise, don't hug it out. Refer to company policies, contact HR, and consider consulting an experienced employment law attorney near you.
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