After complaint, Utah author Richard Paul Evans is among many reflecting on when and how to hug

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Richard Paul Evans estimates he’s hugged thousands of women.

“People come to my signings to get hugs,” said the Utah author of “The Christmas Box” and other best-selling books. “It’s very emotional. If I don’t give them a hug, they ask for one.”

But an official at FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention received a complaint about Evans after he hugged a fellow panelist at last year’s Salt Lake Comic Con. Event co-founder Dan Farr talked with Evans in January about the unwanted contact.

“He offered willingness to talk to the people and apologize,” Farr said, adding that if Evans were to return to FanX, “there would be an anticipation he would be extra careful in his interactions with other people.”

Evans is one of many people confronted in the past few months with issues involving touch in professional settings. The rise of the #MeToo movement has raised the question: Is hugging appropriate in the workplace? Can or should employers who move to stop unwanted contact still allow hugs between willing co-workers?

Sandy Mayor Kurt Bradburn’s recent announcement that Police Chief Kevin Thacker had been fired for “inappropriate touching” has highlighted the issue again. While Thacker had been cautioned and defended his continuing hugs as “innocent,” some women told investigators he would touch their breasts during hugs and made them feel uncomfortable.

Workplace experts say the issue can be nuanced, and rigid hugging bans probably don’t make sense.

A hug might be considered appropriate when someone gets a big promotion or experienced a death in the family, said Kristina Diekmann, a management professor at the University of Utah. But embracing a subordinate daily could be viewed differently.

“Banning all touching in the workplace, you know, ‘You can only shake hands with someone ’... I mean, imagine someone’s crying and you say, ‘Hey, can I shake your hand?’” Diekmann said. “That just doesn’t work.”

But where it’s unwanted or excessive, she said, hugging can be considered sexual harassment.

“What we’re suggesting that companies do is have open discussions within the organizations to clarify what their rules are,” said Pat Jones, CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute. “I think it needs to be individual and have those rules made clear.”

‘Is it OK if I hug you?’

Utahn Pat Ames went out to breakfast with co-workers on her last day before her retirement from a South Jordan customer-survey data firm. There was hugging.

“There were some who said, ‘Is it OK if I hug you?’ And there were others where I said, ‘Come give me a hug goodbye,’” said Ames, who lives in Taylorsville. “It was mutual. I don’t think any of it was unwelcome, certainly not on my part, and it didn’t appear that it was on their part, either.”

But in the late 1970s, when she worked at a downtown Salt Lake City bank, Ames recalled, an inebriated male boss tried to hug and kiss her in a stairwell after work. She pushed him away. Not long after, she didn’t get a raise the boss had promised.

“He said, ‘I decided you didn’t deserve one.’ … I definitely got a feeling that it was cause and effect,” Ames said. “So I walked across the street and got a job at Mr. Mac.”

When Salt Lake City resident Peter Conover was working as a massage therapist, he said, he had to follow strict rules about where and how he could touch a client.

On the other hand, Conover said, “what happens in the workplace is that it becomes very unclear and muddy.”

Once, when he worked at an office, Conover said a female co-worker “would just run up to me and give me a hug. … It felt like a violation. I tried to tactfully say, ‘Hey, I’m not in the mood,’ but I didn’t want to be rude.”

After Thacker’s firing, Sandy Councilman Steve Fairbanks said that although assault or harassment should be reported and stopped immediately, he worries that people in the city’s “tight-knit” community would stop hugging or shaking hands because they fear how they could be perceived.

But Diekmann observed: “In terms of building empathy and relationships with people, you don’t need to give them a hug every day.”

An expert in mentoring young talent said the question of whether to hug comes down to consent.

“Asking permission is a critical thing. If they say no, don’t do it,” said Sara Jones, CEO of Burbley, a talent strategy company, and a founder of the Women Tech Council, a networking organization.

“You shouldn’t always expect everybody to adjust to your own norms,” she said. “There’s a reasonable set of behaviors within every business setting. Especially for people in power, it’s really incumbent on them to understand what those reasonable business behaviors are.”

‘Not the message to take’

Conover said he has felt a double standard about hugging. Women, he said, “can hug and be flirty. … [But] I’m not allowed to touch anybody because I’m a man.”

Diekmann said that while women sometimes harass male employees, it’s “not anywhere near the rates that men engage in it.”

While it’s important to keep social interaction from turning into harassment, Sara Jones said veering the other way — like Vice President Mike Pence, who reportedly refuses to dine alone with any woman other than his wife — is unfair to women employees “and can result in systemic discrimination.”

“The last thing we want,” she said, “is for people to be afraid to talk to one another, or spend time with one another, or mentor one another.”

Jonathan Driggs, a Lehi attorney who specializes in employment law, concurred. “I’ve had some male managers tell me, ‘I guess the lesson from all the stuff that’s happened in Hollywood is I can never have a one-on-one with a female employee,’” he said. “That’s not the message to take from this. … That’s ultimately discrimination.”

He urges sensible policies rather than flat bans on touch and advises employers, “Let’s not check our humanity at the door.”

“If your policy is too rigid, a number of employees aren’t going to buy into it,” he said. “The behavior will still go on. And then employers are in this awkward situation of disciplining employees for really, really mild stuff, or ignoring it and then everybody knows the policy isn’t really enforced.”

When businesses don’t get the balance right and an employee feels uncomfortable or harassed, technology has changed the game, Driggs said.

“An employee could completely bypass them and publicize this on social media,” he said, so employers are sensitive to take the opportunity to deal with such a situation swiftly.

‘Are you going to stop hugging?’

Evans said he has decided to ask for consent before embracing people. He focused his comments on fans, rather than his interactions with other professionals.

“It does make me sad when Dan [Farr] says to me, ‘So, are you going to stop hugging?’ I go, ‘No!’” Evans said. “I guess I’ll ask everyone, everyone in line.”

He stressed that, from his point of view, the contact he has with women at book signings “is not sexual in any way. They’re usually crying. It’s comforting.” He also noted that his assistant is almost always with him in such situations.

Evans said he has sometimes kissed female fans on the cheek, “a sign of friendship” habit he picked up living in Italy, but added, “I’m not going to kiss anymore. That freaks Americans out.”

FanX has strict rules policing fans’ behavior and posts “cosplay is not consent” signs around the Salt Palace Convention Center to foster an inclusive environment.

As for celebrities’ behavior, Farr said FanX has no formal policy, but he is looking at what other conventions do. To his knowledge, he said, no FanX attendees have reported a celebrity assaulting them.

Evans, Farr said, “is very huggy and demonstrative,” and added that “giving that warm reception to fans is very positive.” Farr said he believed the complaint by the panelist was the only one FanX officials have received against Evans.

Evans said he’s navigating new and different expectations of professional behavior.

“I can see that the world has changed, and you can’t be so physical,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop hugging people when they come up to my book signings.”

This story was informed by sources in the Utah Public Insight Network. To become a news source for The Salt Lake Tribune, go to bit.ly/PINTribune

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