How Should In-House Counsel Handle Hugs at Work?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on January 22, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Tuesday was National Hugging Day, otherwise known as every in-house counsel's sexual harassment liability nightmare.

A high-five, a handshake, or a hug -- which is appropriate in the workplace?

To get a "feel" for how to approach hugs at your workplace, here are different workplace hugging factors to consider:

  1. Company culture. Sure, 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. It ultimately comes down to the specific workplace, the type of hug, and the recipient's feelings about it. While in-house counsel can't be expected to be mind-readers, they should have a general grasp of their company culture and require employees to respect colleagues' comfort levels.
  2. Special circumstances. Certain events -- leaving the company, getting 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.
  3. Gender dynamics. If there's a tendency to shake hands with men but to hug women, your workplace may be hugging its way into legal liability for a hostile work environment. In-house attorneys should promptly respond to complaints that certain groups of individuals are being treated differently.
  4. Power imbalances. To play it safe, advise bosses to steer clear of hugs and stick to safe handshakes. That goes for supervisors, managers, and executives, too. Subordinates may feel that they can't rebuff the hugging advances of a higher-up, making hug-friendly bosses prime targets for sexual harassment lawsuits.
  5. Socially acceptable hugs. Although a side hug or quick embrace may be an acceptable way to lock arms, even a "polite" hug may not be a great idea. During sexual harassment workshops or in the employee handbook, discourage people from taking hugging liberties. On the flipside, encourage employees to be up front about their discomfort with hugs and/or preference for handshakes. Make it clear that unwanted contact -- even made in jest -- will not be tolerated. And for all that is right in the world, no pelvic pressing. Ever.

If a problem should arise, don't expect people to hug it out. Work with HR to craft a company policy and establish a protocol for promptly handling complaints related to hugs (and any other personal contact) gone terribly wrong. Sometimes the playground policy, "keep your hands to yourself," really is the best policy.

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