I watched the recent Ted Baker hug story with interest. For those who haven’t seen the headlines, their CEO has recently resigned following a leave of absence, after staff spoke out about harassment including forced hugs and asking female staff to sit on his knee and cuddle him. The resignation statement on the Ted Baker website talks about learning lessons and making appropriate changes.
The story resonated with me because I have been there. My first proper job after graduation was with a recruitment consultancy. The owner and CEO was what some people might describe as ‘touchy feely’. He would often walk into a room and hug you and kiss your cheek, let his hand linger on your back. There are worse forms of harassment in the workplace, but those hugs were a little too close for comfort for my liking. I’m sure that there are some people who won’t see this as all that bad. At the time it was generally laughed off as ‘just what he is like’ and ‘he doesn’t mean anything by it’. Excuses for inappropriate behaviour.
I’m all for a hug. With people that I like.
And there’s the thing.
It’s not about the hug or the kiss or the cuddle.
It’s about the power. It is about someone with the power that comes from seniority, choosing to use it. Underneath every unwanted hug or kiss from boss to subordinate is the subtext that the individual on the receiving end doesn’t have that power, and can’t say no without fear of consequence.
In my case, the 20 something year old me was straight out of university and skint. I needed that job. So I didn’t feel that I could tell a man in his 50s, who owned the company that ultimately paid my rent, to get the hell away from me. There was no one to complain to. So like most of the other women in the office, I put up with it. It’s not something I would do today, but I’m older, and wiser and have more power of my own.
This stuff wasn’t acceptable 20 years ago and it isn’t today. The more we talk about it, the more we highlight cases like these and the more that we show that there are consequences for inappropriate behaviour, the more we empower others to tell those that choose to exercise their power in harmful ways that they can hug right off.