The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently made a ruling that could open the door for hugs – yep, sweet, innocent hugs – in the workplace to be considered a form of sexual harassment.
In the case, county correctional officer Victoria Zetwick sued her employer, Yolo County in California, claiming that county sheriff Edward Prieto created a sexually hostile work environment for her by hugging her at least 100 times over a span of 12 years. The county and the sheriff himself tried to get the case thrown out on summary judgment before it went to trial on the grounds that the hugs were not “objectively severe or pervasive enough to establish a hostile work environment claim.” In fact, they claimed that the hugs were part of socially acceptable conduct as they generally took place during celebrations, such as parties involving sheriff’s office employees (where it was noted the hugged all the female officers!), awards banquets and other celebrations.
But there was also a kiss. Or at least a near miss kiss.
During an awards ceremony, the court describes that “Prieto kissed Zetwick, ostensibly to congratulate Zetwick on her recent marriage to a sheriff’s deputy. The kiss landed on or, because Zetwick turned her head, partially on the lips.” Zetwick apparently expressed her shock to others in attendance about the kiss, but her higher ups failed to investigate the complaint or reach a resolution.
In the case, Zetwick also noted that she was not the only one on the receiving end of the Sheriff’s affection and that he hugged most female employees, but she never observed him hug his male counterparts.
Amid claims that Zetwick experienced stress and anxiety about Prieto’s conduct, the court ultimately declined Yolo and Prieto’s argument that Prieto’s conduct was innocuous and socially acceptable and asked that a jury determine if it was severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment based on the number and frequency of the hugs and the fact that the contact was between a supervisor and his reportee.
Reflecting on the case, HR Morning notes that “while hugging is often an acceptable form of social greeting, it can now be a breeding ground for sexual harassment lawsuits, especially when they come from employees’ managers and supervisors.” They note that in particular, a court is unlikely to care about the intent behind the gesture and instead focus on how it made the recipient feel.