Hugging your employees might be cause for legal action, as in the case of Zetwick vs. County of Yolo.

In that lawsuit, Zetwick, a female Sheriff’s correctional officer filed a claim of hostile work environment… and she has records of what happened and when. Her claims were against the new Sheriff and include over 125 hugs and 1 unwelcome kiss on the cheek between 1999 and 2013. In addition, she witnessed this happening to dozens of other female employees and only saw male employees getting handshakes.

A major question in this case was how a hostile work environment is determined. The original court stated this behavior was not severe and pervasive. The appeals court panel, who determines if the case can be appealed, has approved the case for appeal because they said the behavior only needed to be severe OR pervasive. The Sheriff’s behavior was pervasive and, therefore, could be considered abusive. The behavior carried more weight since he was not only by a supervisor but the highest-ranking officer in the department.

This again reminds us that everyone from supervisor to owner has the added weight of representing the whole company in both word and deed. In other words, if you do or say something wrong, it’s much more serious than if your direct reports do or say the same thing.

The big message here is to know your audience and to recognize hugging could get you into trouble. Ask if the person is okay with being hugged or touched. Even then, pay attention to their body language because the way they react can also be a statement. If no one wants your hugs, go outside and hug a tree.



About Your Columnist

CJ Westrick

CJ Westrick is a featured columnist for Women Lead, the official blog of Connected Women of Influence, where she covers all things human resources and managing people in the workplace. CJ Westrick, SPHR, has been in human resources (HR) management for over 20 years and has maintained her SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources) national certification since 2002. She started HR Jungle, a human resources consulting firm, in 2006 to provide senior-level HR expertise to businesses without internal HR.

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