A recent article in the Wall Street Journal published on April 17, 2017, “Embraceable You: When the CEO Is a Hugger,” describes a trend in which some executives greet employees and business associates with hugs in lieu of the traditional handshake. This conduct is not advisable, however, as it could open the door to claims of sexual harassment and discrimination.
A recent case from the Ninth Circuit illustrates the dangers of a supervisor engaging in hugging with co-workers. In Zetwick v. County of Yolo, No. 14-17341 (9th Cir. Feb. 23, 2017), the county sheriff frequently hugged his female officers, but he gave his male employees handshakes. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a reasonable juror could find that the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment, especially given the fact that the conduct came from a supervisor.
In an earlier case arising out of the Eleventh Circuit, the manager of a grocery store was found to have engaged in sexual harassment by hugging and patting his employees. See Madray v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc., 208 F.3d 1290, 1293 (11th Cir. 2000). The manager explained that he engaged in this behavior in an effort to promote a family atmosphere at the store and increase productivity. The plaintiffs were not initially offended by his behavior; however, over time, the plaintiffs contend that the manager’s conduct escalated and became offensive. The court found that this was sexual harassment.
Even if the hugger does not intend anything sexual by the hug, this can still be perceived as sexual conduct—and perception is often more important than reality in sexual harassment cases. The hierarchical dynamic of most workplaces also can create peer pressure to accept unwanted hugs, which develop into a hostile work environment. Other protected class issues can also be implicated, if for example, an employee has a religious objection to hugs or has a medical condition that makes it uncomfortable to be hugged. In summary, while friendly hugs may be fine outside of work, employers should discourage this behavior in the workplace.
Jeffrey B. Cadle is an attorney in Obermayer’s Pittsburgh Office, practicing in the areas of commercial litigation and employment law. He can be reached at 412-288-2473 or Jeffrey.Cadle@obermayer.com.
Andrew J. Horowitz is an attorney in Obermayer’s Pittsburgh Office, practicing in the areas of general and complex litigation and employment law matters. He can be reached at 412-288-2461 or Andrew.Horowitz@obermayer.com.