A nurse in New Zealand is out of a job for hugging one of his colleagues too tightly. He was discharged from Auckland City Hospital without conviction after accidentally making one of his coworkers uncomfortable.
The incident occurred in February 2021. Seong Oh, 57, arrived at work and greeted one of the other nurses with a hug. He held on to the other nurse’s waist and brushed her cheek. Oh didn’t think anything of it at the time, but his colleague thought he was trying to kiss her.
When Oh realized he was making her uncomfortable, he tried to apologize and hug her again but the other nurse left the area and reported the incident to a supervisor. He was then discharged on the spot.
According to Judge Tony Fitzgerald, the department had a culture of hugging, but Oh may have gone too far. He previously admitted to a charge of indecent assault in a different case. Records show he first arrived in New Zealand ffrom Korea in 2000 with his family. He worked in the construction industry for years before training to become a nurse at Auckland City Hospital in 2015.
His case will be heard in front of a tribunal later this month. The hearing could result in him being deregistered as a nurse.
The judge added that Oh’s dismissal from work has had a significant impact on him and his family. Since being removed from the hospital, Oh has been working at a sushi restaurant and volunteering at Auckland City Mission.
If he is convicted in court, he would be unable to see his elderly father in the U.S. Judge Fitzgerald said if he is convicted, the punishment would be disproportionate to the crime. But the police support the charges.
So, is hugging in the workplace a form of harassment?
You might want to use caution the next time to reach out to touch one of your colleagues. According to employment lawyer Alison Maelzer, physical boundaries in the workplace can be difficult to navigate. A physical greeting may be appropriate in some situations, but workers need to make sure that the person on the receiving end of this affection is comfortable with it.
“Don’t touch your colleagues unless you are confident that they are happy with, and expecting, that physical contact,” said Maeltzer, a partner at the Auckland law firm Hesketh Henry. “That’s just a life rule.”
She added that if someone says they are uncomfortable with a greeting or form of affection and the person persists regardless, it could be seen as a form of harassment.
“On the other side of it, if you feel uncomfortable with an interaction with a colleague, you should raise your concerns,” she said.
There usually aren’t any strict rules regarding personal touching in the workplace, so it’s best to ask for permission or use caution when hugging a colleague.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that some people at work may misconstrue a hug as a form of sexual harassment if the hugs are “so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment.”
Tim Sackett, president of HRU Technical Resources and self-proclaimed hugger, recently shared some tips for navigating this dilemma at work on LinkedIn.
He recommends not hugging anyone you supervise. As for clients and patients, it is okay to return — but not initiate — the hug. He also suggests not hugging anyone at the office whom you are dating.
“Hugging peers is probably okay, but only for those you do not see every day, and only if they are comfortable with it,” he adds. “It can be a good idea to let someone know you are a hugger and ask permission before going in for a hug. This gives him/her a chance to decline the hug if s/he is uncomfortable.” <sic>