Physical Rituals, Creeps, and Plausible Deniability — What HR Won’t Tell You

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Forced hugging’ of staff by CEO Ray Kelvin at UK retailer Ted Baker was the target of an online Organise petition in late 2018. Since then Kelvin took leave amidst further allegations of physical harassment, and later resigned.

The impact of the Me Too movement has changed as it has gained strength and dragged many companies to their senses. Lately employers have been forced to address not only blatant instances of harassment, assault, and exploitation, but also how company cultures may make employees feel trapped in performing physical rituals. (Here’s a timeline of accusations since the Me Too movement began. You may want to get a drink as the page loads and need another drink as you read it.)

Although celebrity accusations get the most press, keep in mind that nearly all these cases happened on the job. Actresses are employed to make and promote movies. CEOs are employed to run and figure-head companies. Being a company figurehead means CEOs embody a company’s values more than any other employee. Even when they are not extremely obvious, CEOs’ habits build rituals, and those rituals build pressure.

Physical Rituals and Company Culture

Although the Me Too movement has focused on gender, friction caused by these physical rituals also applies across religions and cultures. In another recent example, a qualified Muslim applicant’s interview with Swedish employer Semantix ended after she declined shaking hands. The applicant instead placed her hand over her heart, explaining her religious reason for substituting her own physical ritual for the company’s. After abruptly being shown out of the office, this applicant sued and won in court.

What HR Won’t Tell You: Common Defenses

I can tell you from my experience in HR that these less-obvious physical issues (like hugging and shaking hands) are also more challenging to investigate and correct. Typically the leaders (typically men) encouraging the physical ritual will offer a twofold defense:

A: The ritual is well-intentioned.

B: The ritual is not obligatory.

The Best of Intentions

Intention is easily dismissed as a defense, because the harm done by harassment is in the judgment of the receiver, not the giver. If we were to pin harassment to the judgment of the giver, then perpetrators could get away with any behavior so long as they did not admit it was harassment. In the Semantix case the interviewer could claim their handshake enforcement was based on friendly, professional intentions, and then object to their ritual being judged by an applicant from outside the interviewer’s traditions.

If investigations were to disregard the judgment of the giver and receiver, instead relying only on third-party judgment, then whatever matched the culture of the company would typically end up prevailing. Third-party opinion, even the professionally-qualified opinions of the wise wise people in HR, can be biased.

Values and Plausible Deniability

Workplace harassers and bullies frequently use plausible deniability as their defense. Perpetrators claim they had no idea their actions would be taken negatively and were only trying to be friendly, funny, professional, inclusive, etc.

Through plausible deniability, company values can also be a shelter that harassers try to hide under. Imagine a company’s values include something vaguely admirable like:

“Embrace our employees’ whole selves as equals.”

An eager harasser might take this as their excuse to throw their creepy arms around every coworker they can catch.

Imagine a company has a corporate value of:

“Extend every job candidate a warm greeting experience reflective of our region’s proud employment tradition.”

An interviewer could use this as an excuse to insist on a handshake to screen every interviewee.

So HR is left to conduct an investigation that takes in the opinions of the receiver, the giver, what is typical under company culture, industry culture, national culture, and similar court cases of the past.

Option vs Obligation

It is more difficult to investigate the defense that a physical ritual is not obligatory. The giver (Kelvin in the Ted Baker case) may argue that any employee can refuse his hug (back rub, ear massage, etc.) with no retaliation. Even when receiving employees hear that the physical ritual is not obligatory, they may understandably not believe this.

Two rules of thumb I keep in mind in HR investigations:

  • The more prevalent the ritual, the more difficult it is to object to.
  • The more powerful the giver of the ritual, the more difficult it is to object to.

The more prevalent the ritual the more an objecting receiver stands out from their company culture in the eyes of the giver and other employees. Prevalence means the objector is more likely to have attached to them the stigma of being an outsider. Even if the only giver in the company is the CEO, the figurehead’s actions are so seen to define the company culture that an employee who rejects the CEO’s rituals can be seen as rejecting the whole company. Oddly then, a harmful self-perpetuating cycle of informal social reinforcement can evolve even if the CEO does not actually consider the ritual obligatory.

Two of the US EEOC’s Risk Factors for Harassment are:

Workplaces with “high value” employees

and

Workplaces with significant power disparities

Even if the CEO were just a hugger by nature, the act of rejecting the CEO is observed by other employees, and this hurts the objector. Laws that protect whistleblowers or harassment victims were not designed to protect employees who reject seemingly innocuous physical rituals. Once the objector is seen as an outsider then they are often maligned with vague aspersions such as:

“She is not a team player.”

or

“She just hasn’t fully embraced the culture here.”

This is how managers reinforce harmful cultural aspects and keep companies from improving. It is also why HR must force managers to only include specific, evidence-based feedback in performance or candidate reviews.

The Hope of New Alternatives

The fact that a major company is responding to an online petition reflects the successful growth of alternative complaint forums. In the Ted Baker case, Organise provides a way for current or former employees to point out harassing behavior. Since the beginning of the Me Too movement several new apps (discussed here, here, and here (UK)) offered an alternative to the typical anonymous HR report call. Some platforms are shared 2-way conduits between employees and HR, while some platforms are 1-way methods of aggregating complaints and forwarding them to employers.

It would be great if there were some promise of employer action once complaints reached a critical mass (such as the short-lived White House promise to officially respond to petitions that reached a certain number of signatures). For now though, critical mass is typically measured in likes and shares after employees post their experience. Sadly, like Ted Baker, companies often must be dragged into the court of public opinion before noticeable improvement takes place. While the court of public opinion may have no legal authority, it does affect stock price. If CEOs and HR will not take corrective action, maybe shareholders will force it.

What’s an uncomfortable employee to do?

First an employee should go to HR and share their objection to the ritual. If objecting employees are ignored or punished, it is hard to blame them for naming and shaming the company in an alternative forum. At least sites like Organise provide a measure of release, anonymity, community, and support (things HR should be providing).

What’s a CEO to do?

Even if a CEO does not understand the objections, they can stop encouraging a physical ritual that adds no value to the work their company delivers.

Capitalizing on the advantages of a diverse workforce means honoring diverse perspectives and diverse objections.

What’s HR to do?

In the wake of the Ted Baker case, many lawyers encourage banning hugging in the workplace. After a harassing email, would these lawyers ban email as well? Banning hugging is the easy, draconian way out. A better, more sustainable, but more challenging path is for HR to maintain a healthy culture of feedback and inclusivity.

As discussed above, HR must conduct an investigation that considers the opinions of the objector, the giver, what is typical under company culture, industry culture, national culture, and similar court cases of the past. Engage the employees who are objecting. Communicate your respect for their right to object and the value you put on their feelings.

If drawn by two opposing forces, err on the side of protecting employees from harassment, not protecting a creep or physical rituals.

— -

Further reading: Your Foolproof Guide to Hugging at Work (Because it Can Get Awkward) by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West-Duffy

— -

I would love to hear if you’ve experienced a creepy physical ritual at work

or if there is something you want to know about, but HR won’t tell you.