Hug’em County, USA

Are you a hugger?  Do you really just like people and are not bothered by physical contact with people you know as a friend, casually, or those at work?  Are you someone that hugs people, male or female, to congratulate them when something terrific happens to them or they achieve a milestone in their life- rather than a handshake?

If you are or you know someone who is- sit right back and let me tell you a true tale.  The names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent, because everyone is innocent until proving guilty in a court of law.

It’s February 23, 2017, Joe Smith, Sheriff of Hug’em County, is standing before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals waiting to hear his fate in a Sexual Harassment law suit filed by a Melissa Hart a female correctional officer.  The law suit was originally dismissed in 2014 by a federal judge.  Will the Judges uphold the lower court’s ruling and dismiss the law suit or will they let it move forward?

Joe is standing there with his $300 an hour attorney as the court reviews the details of the law suit.  In her law suit, Melissa accuses Joe of hugging her over 100 times over a 12 year period.  As Joe hears the details he admits to hugging Melissa Hart as well as other female and male employees.  As Joe acknowledges the hugging but steadfastly denies that there was any sexual intention, Melissa argues that Joe’s hugs had sexual overtones.  She also claims Joe kissed her when he congratulated her on getting married to another deputy.  Joe’s conduct made it difficult for her to concentrate, Melissa states.  She was constantly stressed and anxious; she even had to resort to taking medication to sleep.

Joe’s $300 an hour attorney interjects that if Joe hugged female employees more often than male employees it was because of “genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and the opposite sex.”

The judges look at each other and the court is adjourned so the judges can deliberate the merits of both sides.  Joe is feeling pretty good about how he made his case and that there was no impropriate intentions.  He was sure that the court would dismiss the law suit.

The court is brought back into session and the judges’ ruling is read aloud.  The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals finds in favor of Melissa Hart. The judges feel that she’s shown enough evidence to persuade a reasonable jury that she suffered from sexual harassment.  The court also sites one of Melissa’s arguments in allowing the case to move forward: that Joe’s hugs were “chest to breast”.  The 9th Circuit says that hugging can create an abusive work environment if itis both unwelcome and pervasive.  Joe we will see you in court.

In case you were wondering, this is an actual event and was decided on Thursday, February 23, 2017.  The Sheriff named in this suit is Yolo County Sheriff Edward G. Prieto, and the story was reported in the Los Angeles Times.

Don’t let this happen to you. HR Partnerships has your back with our online employee education program.  If you are not providing sexual harassment training for your newly hired employees and annually for all of your employees- you are taking a risk.  Remember, employees are human and as humans we all do and say dumb things. A little bit of training and awareness goes a long way in creating a healthy work environment. Also, nothing against attorneys, but would you not rather spend far less money creating a great work environment than paying an attorney tens of thousands of dollars defending your company against a sexual harassment law suit?  In the unlikely event you are faced having to defend against such a law suit, your attorney will thank you and be glad you’ve done the training and have excellent records to prove it.

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