Sexual Harassment At Work: How Should HR Respond? | performHR

It seems as though barely a month passes without a high-profile case of sexual harassment appearing in the news. Disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was the case that signalled a seismic shift in the way sexual harassment was treated. His downfall encouraged women from all walks of life to believe that even if someone was powerful they could still be held accountable for their actions.

In Australia, one person in three claims to have been sexually harassed at work, according to a 2018 Australian Human Rights Commission report. Despite being outlawed for more than 25 years, sexual harassment continues to be an increasing problem in Australian workplaces with women disproportionately at the receiving end.

It’s something your business simply cannot afford to risk.

HR: Guardians of the galaxy

While sexual harassment should always be viewed as a ‘whole of company’ issue, Human Resources professionals are protectors of the company’s culture and embody the corporate conscience. If they do this well, if they listen and allow people to be heard, then complaints should be kept to a minimum.

The sexual harassment spectrum

Despite the raised awareness following people sharing their stories online through the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, there is still confusion in some quarters about what sexual harassment actually means. There’s the clear criminal behaviour including sexual or indecent assault that Weinstein has been accused of, but far more common are the subtle, under-the-radar incidents.

From suggestive comments or jokes to displaying sexualised posters or inappropriate touching, the field for sexual harassment has widened with the ubiquity of new technology in the workplace. A lewd email, text message or social media posting can be just as upsetting as an unwanted arm around a shoulder – and has a wider audience.

In the words of the Australian Human Rights Commission, the legal definition is “An unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, where a reasonable person would anticipate that reaction in the circumstances.”


Size really doesn’t matter when it comes to companies having a sexual harassment policy. Big, medium and small: all should have an effective policy that clearly defines sexual harassment and makes it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable and may result in an offender being sanctioned or losing their job.

As a CEO or business leader, you can be vicariously liable for sexual harassment and face steep penalties if you don’t have a policy in place, or fail to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment occurring – or do nothing in response to a complaint. The best HR leaders know this and their antenna will be finely tuned to what’s going on in their organisations and poised to respond the moment that sexual harassment rears its ugly head.

Head in the sand

There’s no doubt that claims of sexual harassment make everyone feel uncomfortable and the temptation sometimes is to hope that it just dies down or goes away. Top line HR professionals know that left to fester, sexual harassment can be really damaging for those who experience it – and those who witness it. You need your HR department to move quickly to prevent whisper campaigns that infect company morale, cause reputational harm and hit productivity. Who is going to work to their best ability when they’re afraid, anxious or angry?

Policy into practice

That’s why policy alone is never enough. Does anyone read those documents anyway? In case they don’t, whole-of-organisation education and training are essential and it should be a given that your HR team is leading this. If not, you need to ask them some serious questions, before serious questions get asked of you. Regular check-ins by HR to ensure that your people are aware and up-to-date on policy is key, particularly when new people join the organisation. HR leaders should ensure that everyone understands there are clear mechanisms for employees to report unacceptable behaviour and give individuals the confidence to know that their concerns will be dealt with in confidence and be taken seriously.

Trusted lieutenants

But let’s not pretend that reporting sexual harassment is ever an easy thing to do. Many HR directors report that employees are often extremely reluctant to escalate an incident into a formal complaint. So some companies have explored different avenues for reporting sexual harassment. One example is to train and empower a few, trusted individuals in the organisation to become experts in sexual harassment policies. Another option may be to engage someone completely outside of the organisation who has the expertise and skills to handle these emotionally fraught cases in a way that is impartial and fair.

The F word

There’s one word that we haven’t mentioned yet, but more than any other is crucial to eliminate if HR leadership wants to create a culture where people can feel safe and respected. Fear. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of escalating the harassment. Fear of being seen as a trouble-maker. Fear of not being believed. Fear of losing your job.

If you can lead your HR function to replace fear with trust, encourage openness and be a model of professionalism and respect, then you are well on your way to creating an environment that employees feel is a caring place to work and that genuinely has their wellbeing at heart.

And it will keep you focused on leading and growing your business, rather than fire fighting a sexual harassment case that could – and should – have been easily avoided.

“In Australia, one person in three claims to have been sexually harassed at work, according to a 2018 Australian Human Rights Commission report.”

workplace sexual harassment

“As a CEO or business leader, you can be vicariously liable for sexual harassment.”

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