Huggers Beware: Court Case Embraces Expanding the Definition of Sexual Harassment – A Lesson in Equal Opportunity Hugging

By: David M. Briggs

Have you ever been to that office party where your boss greets a longtime employee with a hug?  You followed your coworker in and you can see it in your boss’s face: not hugging you may seem like you are not as valuable or appreciated.  But, had it not been for the first hug, you certainly would have received a warm handshake.  So, reluctantly, you both have to endure that quick awkward hug that makes you very self-conscious and does nothing but make you wish you had hung out in your car for five more minutes surfing the web on your phone.  But while uncomfortable, it’s your boss, so you can’t complain.

Or can you?  In a recent Ninth Circuit case, the court said that a woman could sue her employer where her supervisor repeatedly and wantonly hugged her.  That’s right; an employer is getting sued because of hugging…

So, how did the case come about?  Were the hugs really that egregious?  The woman, Victoria Zetwick, alleged that her male supervisor hugged her in excess of 100 times during her 12 years working with him.  It appears that Zetwick admits that the hugs only lasted a few seconds, were always in the presence of others, and never involved sexual comments or other touching.  She also alleges that the supervisor repeatedly hugged other female employees (but not her male counterparts).

Moreover, Zetwick argues, those hugs were unwelcome.  They were “chest to breast”, which – according to Zetwick – carried “sexual overtones” (although, I think had the hugs not been chest to chest, it would have been infinitely more awkward and carried far more sexual overtones – I’m looking at you, John Travolta).

The court embraced Zetwick’s argument that sexual harassment could have occurred, in part because Zetwick alleged that she only saw him hugging other women.  In allowing the case to go to trial, the court held that “a reasonable juror could find, for example, from the frequency of the hugs, that [the supervisor’s] conduct was out of proportion to ‘ordinary workplace socializing’ and had, instead become abusive.”

In other words, the court said that a “reasonable” juror could find being hugged in public less than once a month by a supervisor is “abusive”.

The case emphasizes that companies need to have good policies and properly train their supervisors about what may constitute sexual harassment and how to avoid frivolous lawsuits.

So, as we continue to mourn the loss of common sense in today’s world of employment law, it seems that hugging is now off the table.  Or, if you must, hug both men and women—regardless of how uncomfortable it makes everyone.  If you do not, you may be welcoming a lawsuit with open arms.

Please contact David Briggs at 503-399-1070 or or a member of our employment law group if you have questions or want talk about updating your policies or inquire about training.