Is a side hug with a co-worker cause for concern?

The Grammy Awards generated a lot of headlines and memes in the last few days.   Ben Affleck’s “happy face” has gotten a lot of airtime, and Madonna has been speaking out against those critiquing her appearance, accusing them of being ageist and misogynistic.  However, the buzz about Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher’s red-carpet appearance at the premiere of their new rom-com is what recently sparked my attention.  What was noteworthy?  That they “looked awkward” together and didn’t make physical contact.

While I personally don’t have enough time or interest to care how these two actors feel about each other or how they are posing for photos, I found Ashton Kutcher’s reasoning for his behavior quite interesting.  As he explained on a podcast this week, he intentionally decided not to put his arm around his female co-star to avoid rumors that they were having an affair.  Well, assuming this is true, his approached worked – maybe too well – because now the rumor going viral is that they dislike each other.

What does this have to do with employment law?  Most harassment prevention training programs give examples of touchings in the workplace which would be considered sexual harassment.  While this red-carpet encounter is far from your typical workplace, it raises the question - can a side hug or simply putting your hand on someone’s shoulder constitute harassment?  Throughout the years, I’ve had many employees tell me in my anti-harassment training courses that they made the decision for themselves not to make any physical contact with any employees for fear of being accused of sexual harassment – going so far as to avoid handshakes.  I don’t particularly think everyone needs to adopt this strict no-contact policy, and I always remind employees that the purpose of anti-harassment laws is not to make co-workers act impersonal or unfriendly to each other.  At the same time, I respect that this personal decision might work best for some.  

In any event, Ashton’s explanation is also a good reminder that it can be prudent to consider how conduct may appear to others, even if the paparazzi isn’t present in your workplace.  It also should give employers a moment to reflect – have your employees had effective and interactive harassment prevention training recently? Ashton was so concerned about being accused of an affair that his conduct apparently made him appear awkward and unfriendly.  Employees shouldn’t have to choose between such extremes and should know you can avoid creating a hostile work environment while having positive and friendly interactions with co-workers. Effective and interactive anti-harassment training does just this.  Let me know if I can help.


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