When once a handshake would suffice, continental style kissing is now the norm. But could certain workplace greetings qualify as harassment?
Many staff feel uncomfortable with the level of physical contact they receive at work. And a significant proportion singled out workplace greetings as particular examples of this, according to a recent survey by Totaljobs.
In fact, 76% want the amount of physical contact they experience in the workplace reduced. While 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 respectively wanting to put a stop to these greetings.
While 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.
Some may not necessarily consider hugs and kisses to qualify as harassment. However, it’s 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 is a recent example of an organisation who chose to do so, having decided to refresh its company practices and policies in response to ‘forced hugging’ allegations levelled at the company’s CEO.
“Sexual harassment is characterised as violating the dignity of a worker.”
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.
THIRD PARTY HARASSMENT
Employers 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, while 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 safe middle ground, 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.
• For further advice on this matter, or wider HR queries, BETA members can access Croner’s member support helpline by calling 0844 561 8133 and quoting the membership number. Croner also works with non-member companies.
Legal Digest – ETN (Equestrian Trade News) July 2019