You May Feel Like Family, But Hugs Have No Home in the Workplace

John Lasseter brought joy to countless Americans with the movies he made as head of Pixar, now owned by Disney Animation. He directed “Toy Story,” a beloved classic. Now he’s gone from Disney, and it’s all over some overbearing, unwanted workplace hugging.

There may be more to the story, but the line that’s been made public thus far. And while hugging may seem benign compared to other details that have been shared in the #MeToo movement to rid the workplace of sexual harassment and assault, it’s all part of the same continuum. And it’s why employers should discourage and be wary of any physical contact between employees in the workplace.

Lasseter and Disney should have been on notice. Last year, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that hugging can constitute the creation of a hostile environment. Hugging, the court said, can create an abusive work environment if it is both unwanted and pervasive. So, by extension, can other touching, such as placing one’s hand on a co-worker’s back or shoulder, especially if it lingers there.

NBC added “hugging guidelines” to its employee handbook in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against “Today” show host Matt Lauer. They read: "If you wish to hug a colleague, you have to do a quick hug, then an immediate release, and step away to avoid body contact."

Supervisors should lead by example. It’s never appropriate for a supervisor to hug or otherwise touch a subordinate. There are so many other ways to express praise, respect, admiration and appreciation for a job well done. Remember, what seems “ok” for one recipient may not be so for another. Consider hugging as a sign of affection that, like other signs of affection, have little to no business showing up at work on a regular basis.