Q: I am a lead engineer. I know I can be awkward. I like to know the rules. Answer this – is hugging a co-worker illegal?
A: Wow. Ok. If I had to pick a YES or a NO. It would be a YES.
I know engineers like the world of black and white. But the world isn’t all black and white. There could be co-workers who welcome a hug or a pat on the back from you. Alternatively, there could also be co-workers who find it distasteful or offensive.
If we boil down the harassment laws, touching, when unwelcome, can be considered harassment. Repeated touching, after someone says no, is even worse. If you hug someone once and the person says they don’t like it, and you continue, you are not listening. And sometimes this listening is observing body language or other non-verbal cues. Do they back up? Do they dodge your hugs? Or they could be more direct and say, “I am not a hugger, so I will pass.” If you hug someone once and the person says stop and you stop, that usually doesn’t rise to a harassment claim. But it depends. (Sorry engineers, I know you hate the “it depends” line). What was the context? Was the hug like when you hug someone at a funeral or was it a hug like when you have had three martinis at a bar on a Saturday night? There are different types of hugs. Either way, it is best not to test the line. Stay away from the line. Verbally offer praise and support for a job well done.
Joe Biden is learning about how a hug can make others feel uncomfortable. Even though our intent may to be express joy, appreciation, sadness or another emotion, it can be interpreted differently by the recipient. Some recommend asking if it is ok. Although some recipients may say that they had no choice but to say yes, but the yes was a yes under duress. I don’t recommend asking because often times the recipient will respond in a way that is expected. “Sure Tom, you can give me a hug.” Yet, they may still feel like they would prefer not to receive a hug.
To be safe, offer verbal praise in a positive and professional way. You are modeling behavior for others, who might be earlier in their career or just learning the culture of your organization.
Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.