The most frequently asked question I get in harassment prevention training is, “Are hugs okay in the workplace or could someone view a hug as sexual harassment?”
The Iowa Supreme Court has weighed in on answering this question in a case involving a school teacher and his relationship with a 17-year-old female student. In March, the Iowa Supreme Court found that “hugs can constitute sexual conduct” for teachers. Now, let’s stop right there. You might conclude from this statement that any hug from a teacher to a student could be interpreted as sexual harassment. But here is the rest of the story.
When the hugs occurred in conjunction with other sexual behaviors to sexually exploit the student, then hugs, in this instance, were considered sexual conduct. The teacher exchanged numerous Facebook messages with the student that turned flirtatious and sexual. And his hugs were almost daily, including meeting up in a Walmart parking lot at night for hugs. Court evidence showed the teacher’s messages were an expression of “his sexual desire . . . with the hugs they exchanged.”
So, when are hugs considered appropriate in a school setting or in the workplace? Here is what the court said. “It is important to note that nothing should prohibit teachers from hugging students for reassurance, comfort, or in congratulation without putting themselves at risk of being charged with the crime of sexual exploitation.”
I share this court case because in my training sessions, I state that hugs based on mutual working relationships for the purposes of conveying compassion, comfort, greetings or joy are not sexual harassment. Our employment laws do not require that we forfeit our normal social interactions as adults in the workplace. Yes, managers must be diligent about their behavior with subordinate employees and with monitoring behaviors among employees. But, can you imagine a workplace in which you could not convey compassion with a hug to a co-worker whose spouse or child has died, assuming the hug was appropriate in the context of your working relationship? We don’t want our workplaces to become sterile to the point of prohibiting all human physical contact.
It’s important in harassment prevention training to distill fact from fiction, to be clear about what is sexual harassment and what is not. I’ve participated in too many sessions in which employees are paranoid and believe the best approach is to remain distant from co-workers. That is not creating a healthy work culture where people feel valued.
What are your thoughts on hugs in the workplace? You may have another point of view. Please share it.