By Mariaelena Agostini
LONDON, Dec 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When is a hug just a hug, and when is it harassment? The question has been a hot topic in Britain this week after staff at fashion brand Ted Baker launched a petition accusing their boss of imposing a culture of "forced hugging".
Ted Baker has launched an independent investigation following the petition which also accuses chief executive Ray Kelvin of stroking people's necks, making sexual innuendo, asking staff to sit on his knee or let him massage their ears.
The law defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct related to sex that violates another's dignity or creates an "intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment".
Employment lawyer Sarah Wilder of MPM Legal said whether a hug - or any other action – amounted to harassment would depend on the victim's perception and on whether a reasonable person would also see it that way.
"Culturally, hugging is not necessarily something that would be acceptable at many workplaces in the UK," she added. "A 'hugging' culture could well cross the harassment line for many people."
She said attitudes towards sexual harassment had changed dramatically in the last 15 years - and women were now challenging behaviours they would have put up with in the past.
"I think the #MeToo and other similar movements ... have also made employers think more carefully about how they deal with harassment allegations," she added.
More than 2,680 people had signed the petition by Thursday afternoon calling on Ted Baker to "end 'forced hugs' and harassment".
Ted Baker said it was taking the reports very seriously.
"It is critically important to us that every member of our staff feels valued and respected at work," it said.
Ed Kemp, an employment barrister at Littleton Chambers, said context was crucial.
"This is a difficult grey area. A simple hug may not cross the threshold, on the other hand a lingering hug plus a comment may well cross the line."
He said Littleton handled many sexual harassment claims, but he was unaware of a similar case to the Ted Baker investigation.
Maria Malone, an expert on fashion business at Manchester Metropolitan University, said the industry was hugely competitive with thousands of graduates – the vast majority women – vying for jobs every year.
However, most at the top of the industry were men, creating a power imbalance that could make it difficult for some women to complain, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It may be that he is a bit quirky, but he is in a position of power and control so if he even gets a whisper that this offends or makes people upset, he should back off. He is abusing that control if he carries on," she added.
(Additional reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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