In this week’s episode of “Trib Talk,” Benjamin Wood, Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens, and employment attorney Jonathan Driggs discuss hugging in the workplace, and how unwanted physical contact can become problematic for employers and employees.
A lightly edited transcript of their conversation is included below.
Benjamin Wood: Sandy City’s former police chief and a Utah author have recently come under fire, both amid allegations of inappropriate touching.
The two men describe themselves as “huggers.” But critics say their actions were, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, a guise for groping and harassment.
With the backdrop of the national #MeToo movement, these Utah stories raise the questions of when, how and if it’s appropriate to hug in a professional setting.
From the Salt Lake Tribune, this is Trib Talk.
I’m Benjamin Wood, joined today by Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens and Lehi attorney Jonathan Driggs.
Taylor, I’m hoping you can summarize the news for us. Why are we talking about hugging? And a follow-up question, is it actually “hugging” that we’re talking about?
Taylor Stevens: Yeah, so kind of the impetus for this conversation was the Sandy police chief, Kevin Thacker, was fired at the end of April for inappropriate touching of women. An investigation later revealed that during those hugs he would sometimes rub his hand along the side of women’s bodies, sometimes touching their breasts. And Thacker, for his part, described himself as a hugger. He said he was never trying to cause offense, that he was just trying to kind of cultivate a family environment, kind of a close-knit community environment.
Before that report had come out, Councilman Steve Fairbanks had worried that a hugging ban or a touching ban within the city could damage the tight-knit community. So that’s kind of the entry point into this conversation, I think, and to your question of whether this is really about hugging, I think that we’re really looking at this wide spectrum of behaviors. From something as innocuous as a hug that’s unwanted, which can still have its own issues, to something a little bit more serious like these accusations with Thacker where that behavior is a little bit, kind of extends beyond just a hug. So I think that our reporting explored this range of behaviors and this spectrum of views about that behavior.
Wood: And with the Sandy City case it seemed like there was a question of whether or not there was intent to go beyond a hug, these hugs were still unwanted. Independent of his motivations, for the recipient it was unwanted.
Wood: And then what happened with author Richard Paul Evans?
Stevens: Richard Paul Evans had been at a panel at FanX, had received a complaint about hugging a fellow panelist at last year’s Salt Lake Comic Con and when we spoke to him he really focused his responses on the phenomenon of hugging with women who come to his book signings.
Wood: Fans, readers.
Stevens: Right, fans, people who, he talked about, that it could get emotional meeting an author they respected and that hugs were often part of those interactions. That’s kind of one thing, but I think the issue actually is hugging a fellow panelist, kind of a fellow colleague in the Utah author world.
That has since set off, since we wrote this initial story, FanX has reported it’s working on an official harassment policy and that Richard Paul Evans will not be attending this fall’s event, and has kind of set off a conversation, especially in that Utah author world, about appropriate conduct and hugging. So I think this is really a conversation that is taking off in a lot of circles.
Wood: Jonathan, you specialize in employment law. Taylor mentioned this kind of spectrum of behavior that ranges from the malicious and overtly inappropriate to perhaps well-intended but still unwanted. With your prospective clients, what kind of guidance might you give on this issue?
Jonathan Driggs: I think it’s important to keep in mind that when we use the term “harassment” that we’re talking about a word that has different definitions: a legal definition, a policy definition, an off-the-street definition. It covers behavior that is very, very mild to behavior that could put you in prison for life. So it does cover a wide range of behaviors.
We talk about hugging, as Taylor said there’s a couple different issues there. There’s the hug itself, and then there’s the hug-plus shall we say, the other behavior, the hand that wanders, holding somebody too close for too long, those types of things.
In talking to employees, in talking to managers, my advice would be that most people don’t expect to have a lot of physical contact with somebody that they just have a working relationship with. At the same time we spend most of our waking hours each week at work and we do develop a wide variety of relationships with people and there are times as human beings that we do express ourselves through some sort of sign of physical affection that is very minor, very customary. And most people are OK with that, especially if it is occasional.
My basic advice is, when it comes to hugs, I think the day of being the office hugger is over and needs to be over. I think the day of being the office flirt is over and needs to be over. If somebody says to me “I’m the hugger,” I’m going to say “I think we need to talk.” Let’s talk about this and some of the appearance that it creates and some of the challenges. But if somebody is retiring after 15 years, to give them a goodbye hug or they just had a father pass away or a mother pass away and you give them a hug in the hallway real quickly, I think that’s usually OK with most people, especially if there aren’t the attendant, other behaviors that go along with it.
So when I hear somebody saying let’s have an absolute policy on these issues, my first thought is that’s really unrealistic. It creates a bunch of other problems and I think we have to give humans and people the chance, the ability to use some judgment on some of these more milder issues where they can be appropriate and welcome in certain instances, other places overdone and opportunistic.
Wood: By way of disclosure I do not like being touched. I don’t want to hug you, I don’t want to be hugged by you. So from my own personal comfort level the idea of just banning hugs sounds fine, but you highlight some examples there of where this could potentially backfire. And we heard from the Sandy City councilman who was worried about just saying “no hugging.” How might that also lead to some problems in the workplace?
Driggs: One of the fun things that I get to do is I travel the country visiting a lot of different workplaces. Every workplace is a different world and it’s very interesting. Within minutes I can kind of get dialed into the culture. You have very friendly, open workplaces, very hip, fashionable workplaces, very buttoned-down dry workplaces, and so a one-size-fits-all rule doesn’t have a good chance of working very well. I think you’re going to cause employees to say this isn’t realistic according to my natural pattern of behavior with people that I spend most of my waking hours with each week. You’ve got to give us some degree of flexibility to use some judgment in this area.
And it’s an interesting point, Ben, that you point out, the different personality types. I have a friend who was raised in a family that they did not show a lot of affection. He got a new job at a company where he said he was hugged the first day about 12 times and he came out at the end of the day, he was a basket case because of all the hugging. That’s the kind of issue that you’re going to have to, I think in that work environment, there needs to be some attention to that.
But you can be in work environments, for example, like the multilevel marketing space or other sales-oriented businesses where you’re dealing with third parties where there is going to be more interaction that gets a little bit more touchy. More hugs. And there’s got to be some room to negotiate through that on a case-by-case, workplace-by-workplace basis.
Wood: Taylor, the Tribune recently asked readers to submit their stories, their perspectives about hugging at work. Talk to us about what you saw in those responses. Were there trends? Was there a prevailing wind in what you heard?
Stevens: Yeah, there was actually. What we saw is that people are pretty hesitant to take a hard-line stance on this issue. A lot of people responded to our question of whether hugging is appropriate or not in the workplace with an “it depends” answer rather than a yes or a no. We did have one or two people who said “Absolutely not. No one should be hugging in the workplace. Why is this even a question?” And others who said “Yes. The #MeToo movement has gone too far, people need to calm down.”
But for the most part, our readers were really operating in that in-between space like we’ve talked about, where sometimes it’s appropriate and it’s really situational and it depends on the context. I think that is what makes this issue really complex. You don’t always know the intention of the person who is hugging you. You don’t always know the desire of the person you’re trying to hug. So there is a lot of factors that go into it. We did see an unwillingness from our readers and our responders to really take a hard-line stance “yes” or “no” either way on the issue, which I thought was interesting.
Wood: We’ve seen some backlash in the public square to some of these more black-and-white approaches. I’m thinking of the Mike Pence rule, where the vice president said he will not dine alone with a woman unless his wife is present — he will not dine alone with a woman. I’m curious, Jonathan, if you have any comment on why the knee-jerk reaction or the desire to set a really firm line can go too far and what those concerns are.
Driggs: I think it comes down to fear and a lack of understanding. I’ve had male managers over the past six months approach me and say “I guess the lesson to be learned from all of these issues developing in the media industry, in Hollywood, is that I can never have a one-on-one with one of my female employees.”
I say well, if you’re having one-on-ones with your male employees, but you’re not with your female employees, ultimately there’s a difference there. It can have a discriminatory impact. That’s not the solution to take from these situations.
By all means, if you’re having one-on-ones with your employees [remember] to be sensitive to personal space. The room, the way the room is set up, I’ve had managers have one-on-ones with employees in very small rooms where it’s almost like a closet and they’re blocking the door. Male or female, I think people are going to be uncomfortable with that. So by all means be thoughtful of the space that you’re in, but that’s not the lesson. It can have a discriminatory impact and that’s not how we need to go about resolving these issues.
Stevens: I think also, it’s important to note that those kind of hard-line polices can have negative impacts on women’s advancement. Some of the experts that we spoke to for this article kind of talked about that once you institute that policy of “I’m not going to be alone with my female colleagues” then women start lacking that mentorship that they really need to advance in the workplace, especially because so many industries are male-dominated, where if you were going to get mentorship it would be from a male colleague. Once you shut that off it ends up doing a lot of damage to women as well in the workplace, in terms of mentorships and I think that’s important to note.
Wood: In the story that you and Sean Means wrote about Richard Paul Evans, the author commented that from now on he will just ask “Can I hug you?” before he hugs someone. He’s still a hugger, he still wants to hug, he’ll just ask for permission first. Does that solve the problem? To either of you?
Driggs: I think that can be a solution in the right time and place. I think some people would say that’s kind of awkward because there is a certain spontaneity about this behavior. When it seems appropriate, under the right set of circumstances, to give somebody a hug and asking for their permission may not always seem like the natural thing to do. So I think it’s a partial solution in the right time and place. I don’t know if it’s something that I would say would be required.
Stevens: And I think consent is very important in a lot of these conversations we’re having about bodily autonomy and people being allowed to kind of say “yes” or “no” as to whether they’re comfortable with certain behaviors. But at the same time I think that can’t erase power dynamics that are at play. If your boss asks you if they can give you a hug, do you feel like you can say “no”? Those power dynamics are still at play regardless of whether consent is asked for. So I’m not really sure what the solution is to that, I think it’s a good start but I don’t know that it’s the perfect solution.
Driggs: I think Taylor brings up a good point about power dynamics. If you’re a leader of people, you need to be even more careful about your physical behavior with people. My general policy is to be quite restrained with my physical behavior with other employees, but as a leader it takes on a whole different ramification. I had a manager approach me [who] had been a manager for about 20 years. He said early on in his career, he realized that he was the touchy person. That was his style. It made him feel connected to people and he thought it was showing his personal warmth to them. And then he realized that it could be perceived very differently.
He said, “I’m still warm and friendly, but I’ve dialed back on this.” So I think it is good, if we’re in a leadership position especially, to be thoughtful about what our behavior is like. As Taylor mentioned, it’s very difficult for an employee to speak up and tell his or her manager “You’re making me uncomfortable when you’re standing so close, or when you give me these hugs.” It’s very difficult for employees to say that.
Stevens: And as one of our experts noted in the process of our reporting, you don’t need to hug employees every day to build rapport. There’s plenty of ways to build rapport with people who don’t have those power dynamics at play. So I think that people who are worried that this is going to be the end of a tight-knit workplace community, I don’t think that it necessarily has to be. There’re other ways to build connections with people than physical contact. I think we can all see that in our day-to-day lives.
Wood: The other element with, particularly, former police Chief Kevin Thacker is this “hugging-plus,” Jonathan, like you said. He describes himself as a hugger, his accusers though, they’re saying they were groped, they were assaulted and that it wasn’t a hug in the traditional sense at all. I’m curious in this conversation that we’re having about reading those gray areas and those lines, there is another element of the potential for the power dynamic to become predatory.
Driggs: Absolutely and I think, having done a lot of investigations into these types of allegations, whenever you hear about the hug-plus type of behavior, the hand wandering, holding too close, it goes beyond the typical customary brief hug. It really is pretty indicative of somebody being opportunistic in their behavior and potentially predatory. So [it’s] very problematic and I think that’s where this type of behavior moves from maybe mildly uncomfortable and the person doesn’t like that type of behavior to something that really is leading into the world of sexual harassment.
Wood: You mention how a one-size-fits-all policy likely doesn’t work. I’m wondering if there are any policy guidelines or general approaches that business and managers might be able to take.
Driggs: I think employers are getting a lot better in designing their sexual harassment policies to include a wide range of behaviors. But ultimately I think employers need to do thoughtful and fair investigations. So a hug could be appropriate and welcome and not be problematic. In another situation a hug could be problematic and something that an employer would take disciplinary action regarding.
So it goes back to this judgment: what’s involved, the frequency, what else is happening with the hug and those types of behaviors. What I think it really requires us to do is go beyond just a cookie-cutter approach and look more at the substance of the behavior. I also think training is really, really critical. To raise awareness, both with employees and managers. To be restrained in this type of physical behavior. It shouldn’t be happening every day. It should be more the unusual occasion or something like that for a hug to happen.
There are, as Taylor indicated, a lot of other ways to show warmth and appreciation for people. So I think training and education, as an employer, as a leader in an organization, I’m going to be watching employees. If I’m seeing high-risk behavior, to talk to them proactively. “Hey, nobody has made a complaint, but I want to make some observations of your style of interacting with others.”
We need, in today’s workplace, to be marketable. We need to have a good set of skills that allows us to interact with a diverse group of people respectfully. Part of that skill set is to watch out for some of these behaviors that cause concerns and can make other people feel uncomfortable. And ultimately it gets back to marketability. I’ve had clients tell me that they aren’t going to promote certain individuals because they have behaviors that make other people feel uncomfortable, and that could be a wide range of behaviors, not just hugging.
But we do need to develop that skill set and some of us are really clueless. Young people are coming out of high school, they’re not aware of the rules. You get people from different generations and cultures where the rules are very different. And there does need to be some training and some coaching, not just the enforcement of policy in a rigid manner.
Wood: I’m also wondering, for people like me, the undesired huggee. For an employer who isn’t trying to be predatory, isn’t trying to harass but is just going for a well-meaning hug that is, nonetheless, undesired, what might be the approach of the employee to then, not complain, but to speak their discomfort?
Driggs: I think part of the whole #MeToo movement is a willingness and maybe even an obligation to speak out. And there are many different ways to speak out. By all means, if somebody is under threat or being attacked, to speak out very clearly and loudly and stop. But in these more milder situations, I think there are a number of different polite ways to do that and sometimes it’s just to kind of laugh and say “You know what? I’m really not a hugger but I appreciate the friendship.”
Usually you only have to say that once or twice for most people to get the message. And then occasionally when you have somebody who is truly socially clueless, there may have to be a different and more direct conversation about that. But I think, oftentimes, there are lighter, simpler, nonconfrontational ways to let somebody know that you’re not really a hugger.
Wood: Taylor, the issue with Richard Paul Evans came to light through the FanX convention. I’m putting you on the spot a little bit, but Sean Means who co-wrote your article, he had a follow-up in today’s paper. Are you able to fill us in on what the updates have been there?
Stevens: As we talked about at the beginning, FanX has indicated that it is working on an official harassment policy now and that Richard Paul Evans won’t be attending this fall’s event. As to what that harassment policy is going to look like, we’re not really sure yet, I don’t think. I think there is definitely more to come on this issue and that we both view both of these stories as more of a starting point of a conversation rather than the end of it. We’re still looking for kind of where this conversation moves.
Wood: Interesting. Well that will be an issue that we’ll be following at sltrib.com. Jonathan Driggs, Taylor Stevens, thanks so much for coming on the show today.
Driggs: Thank you.
Stevens: Thank you.
Wood: Trib Talk is produced by Sara Weber, with additional editing by Dan Harrie. Special thanks to Smangarang for the theme music to this week’s episode. We welcome your comments and feedback on sltrib.com, or you can send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also tweet to me @BjaminWood or to the show @TribTalk on Twitter.
We’ll be back next week, thanks for listening.