When a Hug Creates a Hostile Work Environment

Edward Prieto, the sheriff of Yolo County, California, likes to hug his co-workers … a lot. According to Victoria Zetwick, a county correctional office and the plaintiff in Zetwick v. County of Yolo (9th Cir. 2/23/17) [pdf], during the 12 years they worked together, Prieto hugged her hundreds of times.
Zetwick also claimed that during that same time frame, Prieto hugged several dozen other female employees, but never male employees.
Others, however, testified that Prieto also hugged men, just not as frequently as women. Zetwick alleged that a result she found it difficult to concentrate, and that she was constantly stressed and anxious about Prieto’s touching, which she believed had sexual overtones.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that a reasonable jury could conclude that Prieto’s hugs could create a sexually hostile work environment.

While it may appear that Prieto’s hugs were “common” in the workplace, and that some other cross gender hugging occurred, neither of those things demonstrates beyond dispute that Prieto’s hugging was within the scope of “ordinary workplace socializing.” A reasonable juror could find, for example, from the frequency of the hugs, that Prieto’s conduct was out of proportion to “ordinary workplace socializing” and had, instead, become abusive. …

So, employers, what’s the takeaway from this case? How about this: Hands off at work. Let’s not forget our common sense. Yes, hugs when excessive and unwelcome can create a hostile work environment.
If you have a close enough relationship with someone to greet with a hug, then hug it out. If someone complains about your hugs, stop. It’s just that simple.
Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. To comment, email editors@workforce.com. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.

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