‘Permission to Hug?’

Posted on January 12, 2017 in Employee Issues

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Those who are NCIS fans may recognize the line from the episode “Driven,” where an AI-operated car supposedly kills one of its inventors.  The criminal shenanigans are only tangential to why I mention the issue.


The episode opens with the NCIS team sitting through sexual harassment awareness training. Like a lovingly dysfunctional family, the team members regularly head slap and pinch one another and make stupid/suggestive comments about each other.Abby, the young forensic scientist, is prone to Goth clothing, blaring heavy metal music while she runs experiments and, well, giving people a hug.She’s very sweet. The way 6-year olds are sweet when they want to hug you.  There’s no sexual overtone or predatory intent.  They want to hug you because you look sad. Or they’re overjoyed that you came through a dangerous situation safely.  Or they’re just happy to be with you.

As an adult, however, Abby is horrified and dismayed when she learns that not only is her predilection for affection frowned upon, it’s considered “Code Red” behavior according to the NCIS employment attorney.For the rest of the episode, she warily asks “permission to hug?” when her natural inclination strikes.[Special Agent Gibbs, the father figure of the group, paternally responds with, “Abby, you never have to ask for permission with me.” Awwww.]

It’s a great episode and I love the show (obviously).But there are lessons to be learned from it in the real world–especially when it comes to employees and sexual harassment awareness.Although the environment among the NCIS team would probably make most employment attorneys’ hair curl, there is one key factor that makes the lax behavior OK:consent.NCIS is a work of fiction . . . but every character is comfortable with the back-slapping, double entendre-filled environment.

That’s not always the case in the real world.A colleague told me about a client construction company whose culture had radically changed over the past decade.Once populated with 90 percent men and 10 percent women, the company was now about 60 percent men (many of whom were out in the field) and 40 percent women.The kinds of jokes, comments and touching that might have been OK for a while (or were endured for the sake of keeping a job) were no longer tolerated. Consent was NOT granted or, once granted, had been withdrawn. 

Unfortunately, one of the employees “didn’t get the memo.”He had an easygoing relationship with his female assistant (25 years his junior).  They used to banter about (her) social life and (his) married life. He took this as a green light to be “really good friends.”But when he sent her bouquets of roses (“She was upset about breaking up with her boyfriend!” he cried) and called her repeatedly on the weekend (she answered none of the calls), he crossed a line.He didn’t have her consent to take their “friendship” a step further.As a consequence, he made her feel extremely uncomfortable.His employer is furious–and terrified of the repercussions.The employee is currently the subject of a sexual harassment investigation.

That’s why attorneys get all hot under the collar about establishing bright-line tests for acceptable workplace behavior.In a personal relationship, we learn over time where people’s boundary lines are.Unless we do something completely obnoxious (or harmful), if we step over the line we get a stern talking to . . . and then all is forgiven.  We don’t often get those second chances in the workplace.Who’s to say whether “You look MAH-velous!” might be taken as complimentary or creepy?We can’t know for sure, until we r-e-a-l-l-y know the other person.  So much depends on the tone, manner and surroundings in which it’s said.Being cautious by nature, attorneys will advise, “say nothing at all, rather than say something and stick your foot in a legal cow pie.” As consent can ge given . . . and taken away . . . better to err on the side of caution.

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