In popular culture, hugs are most often depicted as a pivotal form of connection. Friends hug each other in moments of sadness and triumph. Family members hug one another when arriving and departing from shared locations. Even co-workers hug in the movies and on television after completing various monumental achievements. But in the real world, hugs are not always a welcome form of expression. Though appropriate in some contexts, hugs can be considered sexual harassment in others.
If hugs are given at work, employees may perceive these gestures as contributing to a hostile work environment. This is even true if workers do not speak up about their discomfort with the situation, especially if hugs are only given to workers of one gender or if speaking up inspires fear of retaliation.
Hugs are more likely to be considered per se sexual harassment if they are given in certain ways. For example, if someone slings their arm over the shoulder of a co-worker for only a few seconds and gives a side-squeeze for a job well done, this may not be a harassing kind of hug. However, if a hug is unnecessarily prolonged, involves any sort of pelvic pressing or involves other inappropriate gestures such as breathing on a co-worker’s neck or tightly pressing one’s chest to another’s chest, these could be considered forms of sexual harassment in certain contexts.
In the end, it is better to be safe than sorry. Unless you are very good friends with a co-worker, you and that co-worker do not work in disparate levels of seniority and you are certain that a hug will not be misperceived, avoid hugging at work. If a boss or co-worker is harassing you or creating a hostile working environment with his or her brand of hugs, do not hesitate to speak with an attorney who can advise you on how to best handle the situation from a legal standpoint.
Source: Findlaw Free Enterprise, “Is It OK to Hug People at Work?” Aditi Mukherji, Jan. 21, 2014