Is a hug harassment in the workplace?

7th January 2019

Following the news that employees at fashion house Ted Baker have launched a petition over ‘forced hugging’, DAS Law’s Lucy Kenyon looks at what is acceptable in the workplace, and what could be considered harassment.

What constitutes harassment?

The law in this area is governed by The Equality Act 2010 and it sets out three tests for harassment. Firstly, the harassment must be unwanted conduct in relation to a relevant protected characteristic. These characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

This conduct must then have the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of the person, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

As an example, if a supervisor makes a general comment that “Women belong in the kitchen,” this could be considered harassment because a female employee could become upset, or take this to mean that she will not be promoted.

If the unwanted conduct is of a sexual nature and has the same impact, this is called sexual harassment and covers a wide range or actions, such as touching, inappropriate jokes, or sending emails of a suggestive or sexual nature.

Finally, a person is harassed if they rejected or submitted to conduct and anyone treats them less favourably than if they hadn’t submitted to or rejected that conduct. The person who treats them differently does not have to be the person who engaged in the conduct.

This ‘conduct’ is unwanted conduct either of a sexual nature or that is related to gender reassignment or sex that has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment.

As an example, a boss could make sexual advances towards an employee and the employee rejects them. If the manager then passes that employee over for a promotion a few weeks later, then they could believe that it is due to the rejection.

So is hugging acceptable in the workplace?

Even if you are a professional hugger, there is no definitive answer to this. However if on either side the contact is forced, coerced, or in any way unwanted then it is not acceptable.

A ‘culture of hugging’ is unacceptable as it can cause people to be intimidated into hugging. Likewise anyone may feel that they have to participate in a hug with their seniors which can create an environment as outlined above.

Hugging can count as conduct of a sexual nature as it is the way in which the person being hugged perceives the contact. Even if the intention of the hugger is to greet them or console them, they could see it as sexual and it could cause an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment for them.

How to stay the right side of the ‘line’

From an employer’s perspective, in light of the above, the #MeToo movement, and society’s shifting attitudes towards sexual harassment, employers should limit contact to (voluntary) handshakes, or even high fives and fist bumps, so as to limit the possibility that an environment could be intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive for anyone.

Disclaimer: This information is for general guidance regarding rights and responsibilities and is not formal legal advice as no lawyer-client relationship has been created.

How to navigate employment rights in the gig economy

If you are unsure about your employment status, the rights and benefits that come with it, you need advice from professionals who understand the law.

July 2018 Learn more
UK employment law advice

We can provide all the advice you need on employment law. Read up on your employment rights and make sure you are being treated fairly in the workplace.

April 2018 Learn more
Employment contracts

An employment contract serves to set out the terms and conditions under which you work for your employer, so it's important to know your rights and responsibilities regarding it.

April 2018 Learn more

Read more from the DAS Law blog

Employment disputes Can employees legally refuse to return to the workplace?

Across the country the calls for employees to return to the workplace. Simon Roberts, Senior Associate, at DAS Law, looks at what you need to know.

April 2022
Employment disputes International Stress Awareness Month: your workplace rights

To mark International Stress Awareness Month, Simon Roberts takes a look at what the law says your employer needs to do about workplace stress.

March 2022
Employment disputes 9 things employers need to know about apprenticeships

With National Apprenticeship Week here, we explain what employers need to consider regarding apprenticeship schemes and their legal obligations.

February 2022
General advice , Employment disputes Be on your best behaviour at your work Christmas party

A party that is being held outside the workplace should still be treated as an extension of the office.

December 2021
Employment disputes , Growing your business , Protecting your business , Setting up a business Farming tenancies: what you need to know

Mark Woodman, Solicitor at DAS Law, looks at what farmers need to know regarding a Farm Business Tenancy.

June 2021
Employment disputes , Protecting your business How to keep your staff and customers safe when re-opening your business

As the country continues taking steps toward a return to normal, Covid restrictions remain in place in order to allow the reopening process to be conducted as safely as possible.

June 2021
Employment disputes Covid-19: Is your business worried about eviction?

The Covid-19 crisis has seen an unprecedented number of businesses facing collapse. But what happens if your business has an opportunity to get back on its feet only to face eviction from the landlord?

May 2021
Employment disputes , Protecting your business The return to work: a guide for employers

Molly-Ellen Turecek looks at what employers need to consider when returning employees to work.

May 2021
Employment disputes Is there a time limit for providing an employee with a P45?

As an employer, you are required to tell HMRC when somebody leaves or retires, and deduct and pay the correct tax and National Insurance.

May 2021
Employment disputes , Protecting your business The Return to Work from Covid: How businesses can stay on the right side of the law

Although lockdown restrictions are easing for many businesses across the country, health & safety and social distancing measures still apply.

May 2021
Employment disputes What you need to know about the gig economy

Allison Lewis, Head of Employment at DAS Law, looks at what you need to know about the gig economy.

March 2021
Employment disputes Can employers insist employees have the Covid-19 vaccine?

A number of UK companies recently announced that they will insist that all their employees must have the Covid-19 vaccine if they wish to continue working for them.

February 2021
Employment disputes Redundancy: an employer’s guide

Simon Roberts and Molly-Ellen Turecek from DAS Law look at seven things an employer needs to know about redundancy.

January 2021