Hugging is Considered Sexual Harassment?

The 9th Circuit court has further defined what constitutes a “hostile work environment” with regards to sexual harassment. In a recent case, a Yolo County correctional officer claimed that the country sheriff, who oversaw more approximately 250 employees, created a hostile work environment by hugging her over one hundred times and kissing her once during her employment from 1999 to 2012. Originally, the trial court granted judgment in favor of the sheriff. However, the correctional officer appealed the decision and the appellate court has recently overturned the trial court’s decision.

An employer is liable under Title VII for conduct giving rise to a hostile work environment where the employee proves (1) that she was subjected to verbal or physical conduct of a harassing nature, (2) this conduct was unwelcome, and (3) that the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.

While there is no “magic number” of incidents that may give rise to employer liability, the court will consider the cumulative effect of such behavior. In this case, the appellate court explained that a reasonable juror could find that the work environment was hostile because the sheriff hugged the correctional officer over 100 times, hugged female employees much more often than male employees, and, according to the correctional officer, hugged female employees exclusively.

This recent case serves as a reminder to all employers that even hugs may create a hostile or abusive workplace when such conduct is severe or pervasive. Employers must remember that the court will consider the cumulative effect of such behavior, meaning that each and every employee report of harassment is a serious matter and must be well managed in order to maintain a safe and secure workplace.

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