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Mistletoe: Playful Holiday Tradition Or Lawsuit Waiting To Happen?

Is Kissing Under The Mistletoe Sexual Harassment?



Hanging mistletoe at the office invites unwanted kisses, and could also invite an unwanted sexual harassment lawsuit.

David Beaulieu

Mistletoe is the subject of romance and tradition in Christmas carols, and seen in more than one ending to holiday Lifetime movies where two people you know should belong together look up, see mistletoe (often placed there by a Cupid-playing child) and decide they are fated to kiss. Mistletoe, in Hollywood, works for happy endings. But it has no place in offices or the workplace.

For centuries, mistletoe, a parasite plant that climbs trees and shoots roots into the trunk and branches leeching out nutrients, has been considered a powerful and magical plant for centuries:

"From the earliest times mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. It was considered to bestow life and fertility; a protection against poison; and an aphrodisiac" Source: The Holiday Spot.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe has a long history originating in pagan customs. According to Bukisa.com, "...the custom of kissing under the Mistletoe took many forms, in some parts of Europe it was considered as a promise to marry, as well as the prediction of a happy marriage, probably one full with the blessings of children."

Today, most people simply think of kissing under the Mistletoe as a tradition of unknown origins on Christmas, or New Years Day, with no knowledge of the fertility rites associated with the plant. But regardless of its origins, any unwelcome kiss in the workplace represents something entirely different: possible grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Leonard Hill, a Philadelphia attorney specializing in civil rights law, defines sexual harassment as "any unwelcome advances by another person, male or female, that is either physical, verbal, or an act done in a suggestive manner that has an adverse effect on your work environment. Sexual harassment includes physical touching, but may also include lewd gestures, remarks, or even pranks." Hill explains, "If the attention is either welcome, encouraged, or solicited, it is not sexual harassment."

As for filing a complaint, Hill says, "Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal and you may be able to file a complaint for one isolated, but severe incident, or, when if you have been subjected to an ongoing pattern of inappropriate behavior."

Innocent Kiss Or Sexual Harassment?

So is an unwelcome kiss under the corporate mistletoe really a case of sexual harassment?

If an employer puts up mistletoe, or allows it to be hung, and someone is unwillingly subjected to a kiss or a grope, then the victim of the unwanted kiss certainly has a right to complain to management. However, the incident would (hopefully) be isolated, and may not be sufficient for grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit unless other, more chronic conditions existed making the workplace hostile. Yet the degree of "insult and injury" which the alleged unwanted affection suffered would also need to be considered.

Grabbing and kissing a married woman, boss, or an underage intern all would have their own innate degrees of unacceptable behavior associated with the action. It is just not considered appropriate to kiss married women, for adults to kiss teenagers, and it is not considered a good idea to kiss your boss (at least at the office.) Humiliation, and a resulting hostile work environment would also be issues to consider. For example, if a woman grabbed another woman (or man, a man) and kissed them in the workplace, and teasing, taunting, or other inappropriate actions and comments directed at suspected, imagined, or even known sexual orientation, that one little "innocent" kiss under the mistletoe could spiral into a more serious situation -- even a lawsuit.

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