“Let’s hug it out” has long been a bro-tacular resolution for squabbles among friends, but it might not be the best corporate strategy.
Or so the powers-that-be at fashion chain Ted Baker realized Monday, when stock shares fell 12 percent after news broke that CEO Ray Kelvin enforces a corporate culture of “forced hugging” among employees.
More than 2,000 people have signed an Organize petition created by staffers of the London-based label titled, “Scrap the forced ‘hugs’ and end harassment at Ted Baker.”
In an open letter addressed to the Board of Directors, workers allege that the “positive things about working at Ted Baker” are “often overshadowed by the ‘hugging’ and inappropriate touching and comments.’”
Along with the unsolicited embraces, Kelvin is accused of “ask(ing) young female members of his staff to sit on his knee, cuddle him, or massage their ears.” According to the petition’s authors, the line’s human resources department has been “hopelessly ineffective” at responding to the issue.
“I went to HR with a complaint and was told, ‘That’s just what Ray’s like,’” it read.
In a statement released to multiple news outlets including The Daily Beast, reps for Ted Baker wrote that, “Ray greets many people he meets with a hug, be it a shareholder, investor, supplier, partner, customer or colleague. Hugs have become part of Ted Baker’s culture, but are absolutely not insisted upon.” They also pledged that management would launch a “thorough, independent investigation.”
The Daily Beast reached out to reps for Ted Baker for additional comment and was directed to the brand's initial statement.
Though the harassment allegations clearly entail more than just unwarranted embraces, many headlines zeroed in on the “forced hugging” allegations. This led some readers to cry “snowflake,” accusing employees of getting upset over nothing.
“Of course any (form) of physical contact forced upon anyone male or female, should be considered assault but saying “a hug is assault” is a little over the top,” wrote one Twitter user.
In a cuddly culture where Vladimir Putin high-fives the Saudi crown prince and coffee table books document Hugs from Obama, many human resources representatives are not against nine to five embracing—as long as it’s done the right way.
“Where I’ve seen (hugs) work is when everyone has embraced the concept of it,” Andy Partridge, Head of People at Link Humans, a London-based branding agency, told The Daily Beast. “I’ve sensed a bit of that at Zappos, it’s got that sort of culture to it.”
One of the reasons why Ted Baker hugs do not pass Partridge’s sniff test is because the cuddles were initiated from the top down, rather than a mentality first adopted by employees as a whole.
“The problem is that it’s about an individual who is promoting (hugs) for his own cause,” Partridge explained. “The staff there is disgusted and feel that he has stepped over the line. But when there’s a camaraderie about (hugging), then people feel that sense of connection.”
But even the most familial offices may employ people who are not as comfortable with touching as their fist-bumping co-workers. “Even if (hugging) is not included as any sort of policy, it can be understood as the way things operate,” said Janine Truitt, who worked in HR for 15 years and founded the consulting firm Talent Think Innovations. “People may think that if they don’t comply, they’ll be an outlier or be treated differently.”
Jodi Smith, founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting and former human resources professional, agreed that it is hard to make any blanket statements about whether or not hugs are always inappropriate.
“There are industries where you will see a lot more hugging, such as hospitality, fundraising, development, and fashion,” Smith said. “But if you go into a steel melting plant? You won’t see a lot of hugging. Everything is situationally dependent.”
However: “There is not an adult alive that has a hard time telling the difference between a hug as a greeting, and a hug with a sexual undertone.”
Smith noted that “if you want to get technical,” friendly embraces tend to have partners touching shoulders, but not bodies. “It looks like a big capital A,” Smith explained. “The tops of our bodies are close, but our feet and pelvises are very far away.”
It also depends who is doing the hugging—it is one thing for two summer interns to greet each other with open arms, but it’s a whole other situation when the CEO tries to initiate one with a subordinate. “To pretend there is not a power differential in play (with Ted Baker) is very naive,” Smith said.
Even if the allegations do not offend serial huggers, Partridge noted that the Ted Baker human resources team failed to do its part in investigating claims before they hit the news.
“I think what has really bothered people is that the HR department didn't want to address it,” Partridge said. “It's extremely damaging for an employer's reputation.”
To Smith, the etiquette expert, the reported response to the anonymous complaints—“That’s just what Ray’s like”—highlights a disregard for employees' safety.
“That's what every harasser says—'I hug everybody'” she explained. “It doesn't make it better that you hug everybody if people don't want to be hugged.”