Hugging and Sexual Harassment: What You Need to Know

A public transportation worker in Washington D.C. is suing the agency for damages in excess of $200,000 after she claims her supervisor repeatedly asked her for, demanded or forced hugs. Eventually, she said, when she reported the sexual harassment, her boss retaliated against her. hug1

The federal employment lawsuit alleges her supervisors ignored repeated reports of this treatment, even as another assistant superintendent in the bus division where plaintiff worked revealed he had a history of sexual harassment at the firm.

This case presents a good opportunity to talk about the H-word: Hugs. For some, hugs are viewed as a way to “spread the love.” But our sexual harassment lawyers know they can also be a liability to workplaces that allow them to go unchecked. 

Hugging can sometimes be a welcome gesture in the workforce after a particularly long day or a trying shift. But some things that need to be considered:

  • Not all hugs are equal. The level of force, the duration, the placement of each person’s hands and the full extent of bodily contact – all of this needs to be considered in weighing whether such contact is appropriate. Typically, anything more than a side-hug should raise eyebrows. And even side hugs can be troublesome because not everyone wants to be touched.
  • Even people who like to be touched may not want to be touched or embraced by their boss or their co-workers.
  • Consent is key in any physical encounter. This is true also of workplace hugs. But what employers and employees need to know is that sometimes, workers may not feel comfortable saying no to a hug, even if it makes them uncomfortable. Hugs can be inappropriate even if they aren’t meant sexually, so long as the recipient is not comfortable. That’s why it’s generally best for a company to have a policy that restricts or prohibits this kind of physical contact on-the-job, particularly between superiors and subordinates.

For these reasons, if there is any kind of doubt about whether a hug is welcome or appropriate, it’s best to refrain. Hugging absolutely can be construed as a form of sexual harassment, which is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as unwanted or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or “other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

In the Washington D.C. case, the woman first rejected the supervisor’s request for a hug in December 2013, when she told him she was married to another employee at the service named Antawan. He reportedly said at the time, “Ain’t nobody thinking ’bout no Antawan.” In the months that followed, the supervisor reportedly made several more requests for hugs from the employee, numerous times referencing her husband by name and telling her to “hurry up before (he) comes.”

A complaint was filed against the agency by the EEOC in late summer 2014. The claim included a number of other statements reportedly made by this supervisor and overheard by plaintiff’s co-workers. For example, when one co-worker indicated an employee had suggested her husband for an open position, the supervisor reportedly told her “Hell no” and that he was “tired of this husband and wife bull***.”

After plaintiff filed a complaint with management and then the EEOC, she was passed over for a choice job assignment, with her new supervisor telling her that if she couldn’t handle the stress of harassment, “maybe this isn’t the job for you.”

Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.

Additional Resources:

Hugs and harassment accusations in $200K lawsuit against Metro, Aug. 15, 2016, By Max Smith, WTOP

More Blog Entries:

Griffin v. City of East Orange – Sexual Harassment Plaintiff Gets New Trial, July 12, 2016, L.A. Sexual Harassment Lawyer Blog