Could certain workplace greetings qualify as harassment?

A recent survey conducted by Totaljobs has revealed that a many staff feel uncomfortable with the level of physical contact they receive at work, with a significant proportion pointing to workplace greetings as particular examples of this.

Of those surveyed, 76% wanted the amount of physical contact they experience in the workplace reduced, whilst 42% would like an outright ban on certain interactions. Specific actions such as hugs and kisses proved especially unpopular, with 27% and 15% of respondents wanting to put a stop to these respective greetings.

Whilst an outright ban on physical contact at work is likely to be extreme, employers should be aware of the dangers posed by overly affectionate greetings, especially given the current climate. The rise of the #Metoo era has seen an added emphasis placed on the issue of sexual harassment and employers need to be committed to protecting staff from harmful situations.

Although some may not necessarily consider hugs and kisses to qualify as harassment, it is important to remember that sexual harassment is characterised as unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that violates the dignity of a worker, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

As such, organisations would do well to review any long-standing practices when it comes to greetings and consider how these could make staff uncomfortable. Ted Baker are a recent example of an organisation who chose to do so, having decided to refresh their company practices and policies in response to ‘forced hugging’ allegations levelled at the company’s CEO.

Employers who fail to take sufficient action to prevent and address sexual harassment could end up facing tribunal claims. Therefore, it is important to train all staff on the dangers of sexual harassment and how certain well intended acts may be perceived as harassment by the recipient. Any alleged act of sexual harassment will need to be investigated thoroughly and individuals adjudged to have been responsible should be disciplined accordingly. Showing leniency in this situation will only encourage this behaviour in the future.

Employers will also need to be wary of customer facing staff suffering harassment at the hands of third parties, such as clients and service users. Having a clear and reliable grievance reporting measure is important here, as staff should always feel comfortable disclosing any concerns over sexual harassment knowing that the matter will be handled professionally, regardless of who is involved.

To summarise, whilst certain workplace greetings may be unwelcome it will be difficult to impose a zero-tolerance policy on physical contact at work. Even the handshake, which is often seen as a safe middle ground when it comes to workplace greetings, may be considered inappropriate for those with specific religious beliefs. Therefore, employers should take a reflective look at their existing workforce and current practices and consider how these could be amended to reduce the risk of sexual harassment.

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