THE boss of Ted Baker seemed “genuine and warm-hearted”, according to the man who welcomed him to Bournemouth days before a row over “forced hugging”.

Shares in the fashion giant fell this week after an online petition claimed boss Ray Kelvin’s behaviour amounted to harassment.

Mr Kelvin, who has talked of loving Bournemouth since childhood holidays, spoke in the town for the second time at a Virgin StartUp event last week.

He told a previous meeting that the business had a “hug culture”, with hugs replacing handshakes. He said the idea arose out of a rheumatic complaint which made it painful for him to shake hands.

Alex Chisnall of Virgin StartUp said: “Ray greeted me and my 11-year-old daughter with hugs. He then proceeded to ask the 200-plus attendees at his last public appearance on Thursday evening to turn to the person to their left and give them a hug. I didn’t see this as ‘forced hugging’, more a warm greeting, designed to break the ice.

“I read one comment online that said ‘Hugging is rape’... well it’s a sad indictment of society if that’s the case where we can’t greet one another with a hug.”

According to the website Organise, more than 100 staff have submitted reports of harassment, including claims that Mr Kelvin massaged, kissed or inappropriately touched staff.

Mr Chisnall added: “Not having worked for Ted Baker I can’t comment on some of the other allegations which, if proven true, are obviously serious and which I don’t condone as there’s no place for them in the workplace.

“Clearly, you can only take people as you meet them. I hope this isn’t a witch hunt against someone who, both times I have met him, has come across as a genuine, warm-hearted man.”

Ted Baker has promised an independent investigation. It said in a statement: “Ray greets many people he meets with a hug, be it a shareholder, investor, supplier, partner, customer or colleague. Hugs have become part ofTed Baker’s culture, but are absolutely not insisted upon.”

Amy Cousineau Massey, head of employment at Bournemouth law firm Steele Raymond, said: “I think it is OK for bosses to hug staff in certain limited circumstances, where the hug would be wanted, where it is consensual, and where it would be appropriate. Bosses need to be extra careful. Even if they seek consent, that consent may not be freely given due to the power balance.

“The circumstances in which a boss can appropriately hug an employee would be limited but I would be very reluctant to put an outright ban on hugging as my view is that a hug can be a genuine expression of caring if used in the correct circumstances.”

She added: “Much will depend on the qualities of the hug and the context in which it is given – a one arm side hug that lasts a second or two is clearly much different to a front hug accompanied by neck touching and whispering in the ear.”