When harmless hugging hits companies hard - Emerge UK
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When harmless hugging hits companies hard

Well there is nothing wrong with a hug, or a kiss on the cheek, surely? And what a sterile environment we would operate in if we started banning hugging and other affectionate greetings in the workplace.

However, I remember one uncomfortable client evening when I said goodbye to a female client and went for the “kiss on each cheek” approach. Unfortunately, we went in the wrong direction and it ended up almost being on the lips. I was mortified. She emailed me the next day to say “thanks for a lovely evening and let’s do it again once we have sorted out the kissing etiquette!”

So, what is the answer? I do work with many organisations where hugging and kissing is a normal form of greeting. But when does a hug become a “bad” hug?

  • When it starts to make another person feel uncomfortable
  • When it is used for another person’s gratification
  • When it is unwanted attention from another person

And before you all start thinking this is just an overdone, politically correct, HR rant, how about this one…..

When it affects the bottom line organisation

As we have seen with the Ted Baker case recently the press has reported that the allegations of “forced hugging and kissing” have hit the business hard, with its share price falling to a three-year low on Tuesday.

Ray Kelvin the retailer’s founder has been accused of forcing hugs and kisses on employees. The guardian reported that he is facing multiple allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards staff. He was handed a formal warning by his board although the company insisted it was “business as usual” and that Kevin would continue in his job, despite calling in lawyers to investigate the allegations.

So, there are two parts to this that we really need to take heed over – the discomfort felt by staff and also the fact that the company’s share price has fallen sharply since Sunday, when the allegations emerged, which included “forced hugging”, making “sexual innuendos” and “stroking peoples necks”.

Ted Baker joins a long list of our esteemed giant corporations who are now being cited for using gagging orders to cover up the inappropriate behaviour of executives, but are also now feeling the backlash of staff who are standing up for their rights.

More than 300 former and current Ted Baker staff have now signed a petition objecting to the culture of “forced hugging” which they claimed was harassment.

The company said: Ray greets many people he meets with a hug – be it shareholder, investor, supplier, partner, customer or colleague” the hugs were part of Ted Bakers “culture” but “absolutely not insisted upon”.

However, a member of staff told Radio 1s newsbeat “it was very much like a drawn out lasting for up to 15 seconds, an awkward hug which was kind of very personal and intense body contact with him”.

So, is it ever okay for us to hug at work – or should we just stick to a polite handshake?

There are very few actual guidelines, but maybe some of these will help:

  • If you have observed their body language and they seem to be moving towards you in a way that welcomes a hug
  • If culturally that is the normal thing to do – for example. Americans can be much forthright about it but English people can be more reserved
  • If the person has announced some really good news or you are celebrating
  • If a person is upset or emotional and your intuition tell you they need a hug
  • If you haven’t seen a person in a long time
  • Keeping the hug to a short one will keep it simpler
  • If there is a group of people, some of whim you know well and others you don’t it is safer to shake hands with them all
  • If the balance of power is right – generally if you are the boss it won’t feel right
  • If someone is leaving the team or you won’t see them for a while

If the person is generally a contained person or if you never see them hugging others this is a clear indication of not to hug them.

And what can you do if you are uncomfortable about the experience? Whilst it takes courage to tell a person to stop it will often be the quickest and easier way to stop the behaviour, firstly i.e. “sorry, I am not really a hugging type of person”. Although, if it continues you may need to state your feelings in a stronger fashion i.e. “I find it extremely uncomfortable when you hug me in public”. If that doesn’t stop it you may need to confidentially speak to your boss, HR or any other person involved in an organisational Bystander Champion programme if this exists.

However, if the person who is displaying the inappropriate behaviour is your boss far less likely to be appropriate due to the balance of power. It can be extremely intimidating for a junior person as they fear that if they ask you to stop it could be career limiting.

The important thing to remember is that the law is very clear on this – it states that if treatment of a sexual nature is unwanted and creates an intimidating, hostile, offensive or degrading environment for the employee, this amounts to sexual harassment. Touching crossed the line into sexual harassment when it “violates your dignity or creates a hostile working environment”.

Therefore, if it was reported after you had constantly asked for it to stop you may want to raise a grievance – your HR department will be able to advise you.

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