Hugging in the workplace – is it acceptable?

Hugging has become a newsworthy topic lately, particularly given the allegations levelled at Sir Philip Green the owner of Top Shop and other high street stores. Also even more recently was the news that Ray Kelvin, the founder and chief executive of the fashion chain Ted Baker was accused of misconduct including inappropriate hugging.

At least 50 employees recorded incidents that they regarded as harassment and more than 200 employees signed a petition to draw attention to the problem.

There were claims that as well as engaging in frequent and inappropriate hugging, Mr Kelvin had asked some female employees to sit on his knee, cuddle him and allow him to massage their ears. Mr Kelvin denies all allegations of misconduct, but he did resign in the face of these allegations against him.

This may be an extreme example, but it does raise the question as to when physical contact such as hugging is acceptable and when it becomes unacceptable behaviour. What are the boundaries when it comes to physical contact in the workplace?

Naturally behaviour such as inappropriate touching, unwarranted or dominating physical contact and sexual advances are completely unacceptable. However, not all physical contact is inappropriate. Many people do engage in hugging at work within quite acceptable boundaries and between consenting adults, the emphasis being on “consenting”.  A sincere hug can be emotionally uplifting, especially if discussing ill health, comforting someone who has received bad news or in the course of a celebration.  Huggers should still be mindful that not everyone welcomes physical contact and to be aware of this and exercise some common sense.

The law regards unwanted physical contact as a violation of a person’s rights. It is therefore particularly important that managers and figures in authority do not take advantage of their position or make employees feel uncomfortable. Employees often feel that if they object to inappropriate physical contact it could jeopardise their career or even result in them losing their job. However, if a boss or someone in a position of authority forces an employee into a hug or any other physical contact that makes their employee feel uncomfortable or even violated, this should be reported to their HR department, a director or person in authority or a trade union representative or the behaviour is likely to continue. If the matter is not resolved appropriately and immediately then it is advisable to take specialist legal advice. 

At Phillips Solicitors our Employment Law team will be happy to assist you with any aspect of employment law. For advice please contact Gill Brown on 01256 854605 or email gill.brown@phillips-law.co.uk