I stand up from plush-looking, synthetic, scratchy chair and extend a hand. For the last hour, I’ve been straight-backed and smoothing down my slightly northern accent to impress a man who holds a little bit of my (potential) career in his hands. He is taking our chat decidedly less seriously I deduce from the fact he has propped his legs up, lazily, on the table between us for its duration, and sighed impatiently at my answers. I am slightly annoyed at his apathy but I also want the job. So when he deflects my hand and hugs me at the end of the interview, I just… let him.
Today I was reminded of this weird little exchange after reading that Ted Baker’s founder, Ray Kelvin, 63, has stepped down from his role as chief executive and as a director of the company following multiple claims of his inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. Kelvin, Ted Baker workers say, conducted a regime of “forced hugging”, which he vehemently denies. News comes after more than 1000 people signed a petition to protest Kelvin’s alleged harassment and over 60 current or former employees have filed formal complaints about his behaviour. They allege that he not only hugged them inappropriately, but kissed their ears and insisted on giving them shoulder massages. The petition also claims that previous complaints against Kelvin, who has sat at the helm of the company for more than 30 years, were “willfully ignored” by those in charge. “I’ve seen the CEO ask young female members of staff to sit on his knee, cuddle him, or let him massage their ears,” the petition claimed. In reply, HR staff reportedly said it was “just what Ray’s like.”
Almost immediately, the news of Kelvin’s departure was filed neatly under the “hugging row” and, inevitably, the eyes of the internet began rolling. “Forced hugging!” tweeters delighted, “That’s it, I’m going to jail!”. “Jesus wept!”, another remarked. While many of us would recoil at the thought of having to hug our boss, Kelvin delighted in it, according to a statement released on his behalf which denies any wrongdoing. “While the claims made are entirely at odds with the values of our business and those of our CEO, we take them very seriously,” the company said, adding, “Ray greets many people he meets with a hug – be it a shareholder, investor, supplier, partner, customer or colleague. Hugs have become part of Ted Baker’s culture, but are absolutely not insisted upon.”
That “hugs have become part of Ted Baker’s culture” is disturbing enough. But, regardless of Kelvin’s culpability in this particular example, the wider discussion around “forced hugging” is an interesting one. The reductive language used to describe a feeling of being intensely uncomfortable is revealing about how we see behaviour like this in the workplace and out of it: that to raise a complaint about it would be hyperbolic; that being uncomfortable is something to be accepted, not challenged.
For years that’s how it has been. We all know when a male serial hugger transitions from annoying to creepy. We all know when a hug is not a hug; we’ve each seethed at the brashness of a man pulling your chest against his while he silently sizes up your tits in a way so insidious you feel stupid if you dare to point it out. We put up with the hand that sits too low on the hips, or a few inches too far around your back on the outline of your bra under a shirt. Until Weinstein, and #MeToo, those things were considered too insignificant – women’s bodies, arguably, were considered too unimportant – to warrant talk.
But we’ve long known that these sexual microaggressions can act as a “gateway mechanism” to sexual offences. And leaving these behaviours unchallenged can only allow them to grow in confidence. As confident, perhaps, as Phillip Green who was, this weekend, seen kissing an alleged employee who is sitting on his knee, referring to her only as “Naughty”, in a video leaked to The Sun newspaper. did anything illegal, but it's no surprise the tabloid bellowed 'Slime Green' on Saturday’s front page.
The outcome of Ray Kelvin’s case remains to be seen pending further investigation. For now, the questions it has raised are useful.
The man who hugged me at the end of my interview offered me the job (but not before demanding that I book his daughter an Uber on his phone because, he said, “you’re young” and “I don’t care to learn how to do it”). I turned it down, but I didn't speak up and I wish I had. Instead I just didn’t progress at a company where I had potential, partly because of his behaviour, while he flourished. How many other women must do the same?