Is Hugging Sexual Harassment?

Man Hugging Woman at her Desk

Not all sexual harassment involves sex. Unwanted comments and physical attention can make the workplace an uncomfortable place to be. When these seemingly minor offenses pile up and make a hostile work environment, it can leave you wondering, "Is hugging sexual harassment?"

In this blog post I will discuss whether hugging is sexual harassment. I will review reports of Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, who resigned following complaints about unwanted workplace hugging. I will also describe what employees can do if hugs are making them uncomfortable at work.

Pixar Executive Steps Down for Hugging Sexual Harassment Claims

Insiders at Disney/Pixar have long raised concerns about one of the company's top executives, John Lasseter, for unwanted sexual advances. Lasseter describes himself as "Peter Pan", with a jolly public persona and a reputation for greeting anyone around with lengthy bear hugs. As early as 2011, The Wall Street Journal published pictures of Lasseter hugging at least 48 people in one day at the office.

Then in November 2017, the Hollywood Reporter interviewed multiple Pixar employees who spoke out about Lasseter's behavior anonymously, for fear it would threaten their careers in animation. One employee said he was also known for "grabbing, kissing, making comments about physical attributes." He also had a reputation for drinking heavily at premier parties and other company social events, which would increase his behavior.

Is Hugging Sexual Harassment Under Federal Law?

Given the nature of the complaints against Mr. Lasseter, there were some who thought he had been unfairly included in the #TimesUp movement that brought to light sexual misconduct claims against Harvey Weinstein and so many others. They questioned whether hugging counts as sexual harassment.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, illegal sexual harassment includes any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, jokes, or slurs that are sexual in nature. Before they can be the basis for a complaint in federal court or with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the conduct must be so frequent or severe that it creates a work environment the average person would find hostile or offensive. Sexual harassment also includes circumstances where those requests or conduct result in adverse employment decisions (including quid pro quo sexual requests).

That means, under federal law, hugging can be the basis for a federal sexual harassment claim, if it happens so often that a normal person would be uncomfortable. Generally, the person complaining about the sexual harassment will need to show that she or he objected to the behavior but it continued anyway. However, in many cases, hugging is just the most obvious symptom of more serious forms of sexual harassment.

"Day of Listening" Reveals Sexual Harassment Problems at Disney

At the time the complaints became public, Lasseter agreed to take a leave of absence from Pixar. He said:

"I have always wanted our animation studios to be places where creators can explore their vision with the
John Lasseter — Photo by Vanessa Lua

John Lasseter - Photo by Vanessa Lua*

support and collaboration of other gifted animators and storytellers. . . . This kind of creative culture takes constant vigilance to maintain. It's built on trust and respect, and it becomes fragile if any members of the team don't feel valued. As a leader, it's my responsibility to ensure that doesn't happen; and I now believe I have been falling short in this regard."

He said he was stepping down in light of "difficult" and "painful" conversations about his "missteps." A former Pixar employee said Lasseter’s statement trivialized his behavior. The employee said:

“To sum this up as unwanted hugs is belittling and demeaning. If it was just unwanted hugs, he wouldn’t be stepping down.”

In response to Lasseter's leave, Disney conducted a "day of listening" in February 2018. What the company heard was that Lasseter's behavior went beyond hugging. Female employees of the animation giant learned to turn their heads quickly to avoid being kissed. They would also sit bent over in a defensive posture, with an arm across their thighs, to prevent Lasseter's hands from "traveling." During their investigation, Disney Animation and Pixar also learned that staff members found Lasseter increasingly domineering.

In response, in June, 2018, the Walt Disney Company announced Lasseter would not be coming back. Despite his long, prestigious career, the company decided that his hugging and other sexual behavior had harmed the company’s culture and its employees. They announced that Lasseter will take on a consulting role until the end of 2018, and won’t have an office at the company. Then he will leave permanently.

Hugging is a form of sexual harassment. If it happens frequently enough, and despite employee objections, it can create a hostile work environment and trigger a violation of federal employment law. It can also be a symptom of more severe, if less publicly visible, forms of sexual harassment that can seriously harm an employee, and a company.

At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys know what hugging sexual harassment looks like, and the harm it can do to employees unable to avoid the unwanted sexual contact. We will take your claims seriously and help you create a plan to get you back to a comfortable working environment, including filing an EEOC complaint or federal lawsuit. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

* Photo by Vanessa Lua, used with permission. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons license.

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