The word “hug” conjures up images of friendly affection, warmth and security. Most people like hugs. They’re joyous at a wedding and comforting at a funeral. Our smartphones even have emojis for hugging. But hugs aren’t always appropriate, especially in the workplace. For example, in an article for CNN, Lianne Kolirin writes that staff at fashion chain Ted Baker aren’t so thrilled about being “forced” to hug.
“More than 2,000 members of staff and customers of the UK retailer have called on the firm's founder and CEO, Ray Kelvin, to alter his behavior,” she writes, “including ‘inappropriate touching,’ which they say is ‘part of a culture that leaves harassment unchallenged.’”
The call to stop the “forced hugging” was made in an open letter to the company’s board of directors via online platform Organise, which is focused on workplace-specific campaigns. According to Organise, the 300 staff included in the 2,000 petition signers represents the biggest group of reports at one employer they have ever seen on that platform.
Read closely, these complaints aren’t just coming from staff. Customers are also taking issue with what they perceive as inappropriate physical contact by Kelvin. Obviously, even though a hug can be nice, an unwanted hug is, well, not so nice and rarely appropriate in the workplace.
“According to the petitioners, Kelvin regularly makes sexual innuendos, strokes people’s necks and discusses his sex life,” writes Kolirin. “Complaints through official channels fall on deaf ears, they say.” Kolirin quoted one actual complaint in particular: "I've seen the CEO ask young female members of staff to sit on his knee, cuddle him, or let him massage their ears. I went to HR with a complaint and was told 'that's just what Ray's like.'"
While Kelvin’s behavior may seem outrageous and a complete anomaly in the era of changing attitudes towards sexual harassment in the workplace, it represents the reality that such things still happen. And not just in small, obscure, back-alley shops. In prominent, high-profile companies, like this one.
In this instance, the problems stems from the top of the organization—exactly the place where good examples need to be set. There’s no excuse for a senior leader, or company owner, to condone or exhibit this type of behavior.
But, while this may represent the extreme, consider what the situation might be like in your organization. To what extent are you aware of the subcultures that might exist across your organization? To what extent are you aware of the unwelcome activities that may be perpetuated or supported by members of your supervisory or management staff?
No employee should work in a hostile environment.
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