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Sexual harassment in the workplace — When is a hug a good thing? When is it bad?

By Kate Stevens. A hug between two co-workers can be interpreted quite differently if the work environment is rife with crude jokes and sexual innuendos or if it is an open one with respectful communication and behavior.

If the office culture is hostile, that hug could be interpreted as sexual harassment, according to human resource and legal experts speaking at the Business Today and Cornelius Today Newsmakers Breakfast at The Peninsula Club.

And ignoring sexual harassment claims can be costly mistakes small-business owner can’t afford to make.

“You as a business owner or manager or leader, you have to make sure you’re creating a respectful work place, across the board,” said Deanna Arnold, a human resource consultant and founder of Cornelius-based Employers Advantage, a company providing human resources support for small businesses.

“If it’s the culture of the organization to be open and friendly, that doesn’t mean its harassing, right?” Arnold continued. “But if you’re in more of a hostile work environment where it is common practice for jokes or inappropriate touching, if you’re hugging somebody innocently, that’s going to be perceived as more crossing the line into harassment.”

Arnold suggested creating a workplace where people who feel uncomfortable can say something to a superior without fear of retribution or being ignored.

Small businesses are “highly susceptible” to sexual harassment claims because they don’t have the same resources, like having a human resources department, that larger corporations do, said Michael Harman, a labor attorney in Huntersville who started his own firm in 2016.

To educate employees, sexual harassment training seminars should be held annually either with in-house human resources employees or by hiring outside experts to come in, said Kristen Maxwell, human resources director for Aquesta Bank and Insurance.

“The policy is one of the biggest things you can do and is what comes up in litigation when you’re in court,” said Harman.

A small business needs a policy that clearly states the definition of sexual harassment and one that gives multiple avenues of reporting that harassment to not just a supervisor, but a human resource officer or the CEO, Harman said.

Any claim of sexual harassment should be taken seriously and followed up by interviews and documentation, Maxwell said.

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employers, including state and local government, the federal government, labor organizations and employment agencies, according to the EEOC.

When an employee feels he or she has been the victim of unlawful discrimination, including sexual harassment in the workplace, that employee has 180 days from the time of the alleged discriminatory act to file a charge with the EEOC, said Harman.