Ninth Circuit: Pervasive, Unwanted Hugs May Create Hostile Work Environment

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February 23, 2017

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A recent case, Zetwick v. County of Yolo, highlighted the importance of organizations conducting harassment prevention training. In Zetwick, Officer Victoria Zetwick complained that the sheriff of the department regularly greeted her and other female officers by hugging and sometimes kissing them on the cheek. He did not greet male employees in the same manner. Zetwick registered several complaints about the sheriff’s behavior, but her complaints were not acted upon.

The County did not deny that hugging occurred, but argued that the hugs were the kind “one might give a relative or friend.” Defendant also denied that the hugging created a hostile work environment on the basis that they were infrequent (estimated at about 7-8 hugs per year), and thus maintained that the sheriff’s conduct did not qualify as harassment because the behavior was not severe and pervasive.

The Ninth Circuit reversed. According to the circuit court, the sheriff’s conduct, even if considered platonic or “common workplace behavior,” could still constitute as harassment depending on a number of factors, such as the number of times or the period of time in which the behavior occurred. A jury could reasonably find the sheriff’s conduct as “out of proportion to ‘ordinary workplace socializing,’” and simply boiling the case down to the number of times the hugs occurred per year ignored the other factors involved in the complaint: the kind of hugging, the persistence of the conduct, and the potentially greater impact of harassing behavior coming from the highest ranking officer at the worksite.

Furthermore, under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, it was not necessary for the harassing conduct to be both severe and pervasive – rather, the behavior only needed to be established as severe or pervasive.

While a hug may seem innocuous, it is important for organizations to provide all supervisory staff training on appropriate workplace behavior. Whenever an employee complains about unwanted advances, organizations must be prepared to investigate and act upon the complaint.

Action Items

  1. Arrange for training of managers/supervisors on harassment and professional conduct.
    o ManagEase offers Harassment, Discrimination & Retaliation Training for Managers/Supervisors, compliant with CA-required training regulations. View our training schedule and register for training here.
  2. Subscribers can call our HR On-Call Hotline at (888) 378-2456 for further assistance.

Disclaimer: This document is designed to provide general information and guidance concerning employment-related issues. It is presented with the understanding that ManagEase is not engaged in rendering any legal opinions. If a legal opinion is needed, please contact the services of your own legal adviser.

© 2017 ManagEase, Incorporated.

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