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posted: 6/23/2019 6:10 AM

Try tough love to set boundaries for huggy employee

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  • When you have an employee who cannot seem to stop hugging staff, it's time to set firm boundaries.

    When you have an employee who cannot seem to stop hugging staff, it's time to set firm boundaries.
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Q: I supervise an employee who cannot seem to stop hugging staff. She's 22, and this is her first professional job out of college. She's a racial minority and from another country. She's been gently spoken to about this, that it's inappropriate and can even be the cause of a lawsuit. She seems to restrain herself for a bit, but then she's at it again. She's charming, extremely bright and talented, working in a difficult-to-fill position, so I don't want to lose her. I suspect this hugging comes from the religious sect she became involved with in college (which is another issue -- I've had to speak firmly to her about not discussing her faith with clients). She doesn't seem to grasp the difference between college communities and a work environment. We are a small not-for-profit without an HR department, so I can't pass the buck to anyone.

A: In a recent column, I recommended a manager not respond directly to a needy subordinate's flattery and emotional breakdowns. In that scenario, setting firm personal boundaries to steer the employee toward desirable behavior was the best way to avoid getting enmeshed in an emotionally fraught situation -- and really, how do you call someone out for complimenting you too much?

However, in your case, the problem behaviors are specific and easily identifiable: laying hands on colleagues and talking about personal issues with clients (both without permission or invitation, yes?). I notice you've spoken to her "gently" about the former and "firmly" about the latter -- but to my mind, both are disrespectful of other people's boundaries. And letting it slide because she's a superstar performer tells other workers and clients that their boundaries are less valuable. (At the extreme end, that's how we end up with predatory CEOs and celebrities committing assaults for decades unchecked.)

It's possible your employee keeps backsliding because the idea of being sued over a friendly hug seems too far-fetched a consequence to take seriously, or she sees no offense in a heartfelt expression of personal belief. Or she may lack impulse control or empathy for people who don't share her affectionate nature. Regardless, the response is the same: "Don't do that," repeated as needed in increasingly less-gentle language that outlines consequences:

"You have been asked to stop [Doing the Thing], but you are still doing it. I am now formally warning you that you have to stop [Doing the Thing]. We value you, and you do great work, but we can't have employees [Doing the Thing] in this workplace."

However, employment attorney Amy Epstein Gluck of FisherBroyles brings up an interesting question: How do you know about your employee Doing the Things? Through observation or through complaints from colleagues or clients? If the latter, is there any chance the complaints have discriminatory motives? Nothing about your letter suggests bias is at play, but if her race, national origin and religion are worth mentioning, it's worth examining the context of the complaints to rule it out.

At minimum, you should document your performance discussions with follow-up emails and make sure you're applying the same standards and policies to her that your organization applies to all employees. And when in doubt, although you don't have an HR department, you can contact an employment attorney or freelance HR consultant to ensure you're taking the right approach.