Essay: Establishing the Role and Rules of HR in Workplace Sexual Harassment

HR’s Ever-Changing Roles

The role that Human Resources play in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is at best, a complicated position.  Studies suggest that between one and four out of five working people have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (Australian Human Rights Commission 2012). This proves that sexual harassment is still a widespread issue in the workplace.  While the role that HR plays is certainly important in protecting workers in an increasingly diverse and global workforce, the actual responsibilities and goals vary greatly by organization.   There are many factors that contribute to any alleged case of sexual harassment and each of these factors will influence how HR approaches and ultimately resolves these cases.  HR representatives can perform the function of mediator, counselor, investigator, lawyer, employee advocate and educator among many other roles.   Many businesses hope that HR’s intervention in sexual harassment claims at the onset will prevent lawsuits and bad publicity for the company down the line, so HR remains a company’s first line of defense in preventing and resolving sexual harassment issues.

In order to successfully perform all their job responsibilities in these cases, HR’s first goal is to properly define what sexual harassment is and what it entails.  According to a 2014 article, “harassment is commonly but erroneously associated only with comments or actions that carry a sense of “quid pro quo” (this for that).  However, most harassment claims fall under what is termed a “hostile work environment,” wherein the culture of the organization is considered offensive even in the absence of a transactional quid pro quo overture” (DeLoach, 2014).  It is the job of HR to establish a work environment that avoids unnecessary stress and hostility.  However, this is often easier said than done when considering how many ways employees and supervisors can interpret the term, “hostile work environment”.

Sexual Harassment or Office Romance?

The role of HR in regulating personal relationships in the workplace is a messy and difficult position. In terms of sexual harassment, this becomes even harder to define when considering workplace romances.  Office romances are an inevitable part of any workplace environment.  Employees spend a majority of their day in close contact and interaction with the same people daily.  Expectedly, relationships that may become intimate may form over time.  This type of relationship within the workplace may dramatically alter the dynamic of the work environment, making fellow employees uncomfortable.

In addition, if the relationship is one between a supervisor and subordinate, issues of favoritism and discrimination may arise.  There are numerous issues related to the couple themselves and the other employees who are witness to their relationship from where sexual harassment claims can originate.  It falls on HR to establish the rules for these relationships and if such conduct among employees will be allowed at all within the workplace (Doll, 2015). Although it is impossible to regulate employee conduct outside of the workplace, it is imperative that HR representatives establish rules for conduct and the limits of romantic relationships to avoid creating this type of hostile environment.

HR As Lead Investigator

When sexual harassment claims do inevitably arise, it falls to the HR department to investigate the validity of such claims.  As stated in “Legal Issues for HR Representatives”, “While the primary goal of an investigation is [to determine] the guilt or innocence of the individual named by the complainant for violating workplace rules, the employer may have other goals. These may include issues concerning whether workplace rules and policies are appropriate or in need of revision or clarification, or the need for new policies.” (Woska, 2013)  HR’s role as investigator is absolutely vital in ensuring that complaints are thoroughly probed, but also in making certain that current policies are up-to-date and relevant in today’s constantly changing workforce.

Conflict Resolution

HR representatives also serve a dual purpose of protecting employees and protecting the company that employs them.  This fragile role can find an HR representative operating as a mediator caught in the middle of a conflict between employees, between employees and supervisors, or employees and the company itself.  HR representatives wear many different hats when attempting conflict resolution.  In relation to sexual misconduct, HR representatives may be called upon to act as counselors and therapists when trying to undercover the underlying reasons that have resulted in conflict.

In addition to this role, HR also serves a neutral third-party mediator.  In order to successfully address issues, “effective complaint-handling requires that the complainant perceives the process as fair and effective, even if they do not agree with the outcome” (Walker and Hamilton 2011). This may be one of the most important responsibilities of an HR representative, as it could mean the difference between resolving an issue peacefully or having it escalate into a lawsuit against the company.  Human resources serves as an advocate for both the company as well as the employee, so HR must be aware of all the rights and protections of both as it relates to sexual harassment.  As a result of this constant risk of lawsuits, yet another very important role of HR representatives involves a good understanding of legal issues relating to the workplace.

Company Protection and Litigation

One of the greatest concerns with any HR representative is the constant looming threat of litigation from employees.  HR representatives often act as a pseudo-lawyer in this case.   It is imperative that an HR representative have a working knowledge and understanding of employment laws, particularly as it relates to sexual discrimination. When attempting to resolve sexual harassment claims, HR representatives have to take into account privacy and confidentiality laws.  For example, the U.S. Constitution provides the right to privacy for public sector employees (Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965). (8) Also, there are certain occupations that have specific rights provided to employees through state and/or federal legislation (Woska, 2015).  This knowledge of the laws when developing codes of conduct and addressing issues that arise within the workplace may make the difference between peacefully resolving an issue within the company, or an expensive, drawn-out lawsuit.

Cultural Liaison       

Another role that HR plays in preventing workplace sexual harassment is that of cultural connoisseur.  It is the job of HR to be able to properly identify and address legitimate claims of sexual harassment and discrimination and what may be nothing more than miscommunication or misinterpretation of different cultural norms.  HR must consider various cultural differences in relation to what is appropriate among the sexes.  In an increasingly global workplace, HR must demonstrate at least a basic understanding of cultural differences and societal norms among genders in other countries and how these factor into what is considered sexual harassment.  In addition, same-sex harassment is another relatively current issue that also requires HR to be sensitive to changing cultural standards; these factors must be reflected in literature and codes of conduct developed by the HR office.

In an increasingly global workplace that consists of a number of diverse cultures with differing views on sex and gender, HR representatives are called on to protect employees and the company while also remaining sensitive and accommodating to the differences in religion and culture that ultimately will come into play.  (Gilbert, 2013) However, who sets the standard?  If one culture allows for free interaction between the sexes and another strictly prohibits such communication among opposite genders that are not related, whose cultural standard sets the official standard of the workplace?  It is the complicated role of HR to establish these standards and effectively communicate the rules of conduct that will apply to all employees across cultures.

Employee Advocate

In addition to being sensitive to employee culture, HR representatives are also called on to be an advocate for their employees in sexual harassment cases.  For example, advocacy becomes essential in cases of harassment between a boss and his subordinate.  HR representatives are in a very unique position within a company where they do report to a supervisor, but at times may be called on to address the conduct of the same supervisor within the organization.  HR representatives are often put in an awkward position of having to reprimand and discipline their own boss.   In sexual harassment cases, HR may very well be called on to act as enforcer of sexual harassment policies within the company, sometimes to the detriment of their own administrators.


Sexual Harassment Training and Education

Finally, HR serves as educator and trainer of employees in regards to appropriate conduct. Any company’s best line of defense in preventing sexual harassment and avoiding conflict and lawsuits is by adequate training and education at the onset.  If employees are on-boarded with certain expectations of what type of conduct is acceptable or unacceptable in the workplace, there is much less room for confusion later on (MacDonald, 2015). HR must establish, communicate and properly educate employees on what is and is not acceptable behavior in the workplace.  This role may be the most important in greatly preventing sexual harassment complaints.  If employees know what is expected of them and what their rights are, this knowledge may help in resolving potential sexual harassment conflicts before they escalate (Bartels, 2011).   The bottom line is—education and training is ultimately the best way to prevent harassment problems from forming in the first place.

Ultimately, proper training and education of employees from the beginning may not be able to completely eliminate sexual harassment claims, but ensuring that employees know their rights as well as their restrictions beforehand should at least greatly reduce the number of claims.  Miscommunication is at the root of most HR issues; this problem can be greatly reduced by supplying employees with the most appropriate, up-to-date information available related to workplace conduct.

Most companies would benefit greatly from a review and evaluation of their current sexual harassment code of conduct.  Many of these rules are either outdated legally or are no longer relevant or applicable in today’s ever-changing, ultra politically-correct social climate.  Culture sensitivity and sexual identity are at the forefront of most recent conversation.  Behavior that may have been socially acceptable in the workplace even 20 or 30 years ago, particularly as it relates to women are now grossly antiquated (Gilbert, 2015).  HR needs to incorporate the changing social dynamics into their literature about what does and does not constitute sexual discrimination and harassment.


In conclusion, the roles that HR plays in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace are many and varied.  Among the many responsibilities, HR must act as a lawyer with a firm understanding of current employment and sexual harassment laws.  HR must also operate as mediator when conflicts arise among employees to prevent these conflicts from escalating. HR is also placed in the complicated position of advocate for the employee but also representative of the company.  This role may also require HR to act as an enforcer of current policies.  Additionally, HR must serve as an authority on cultural differences and must take these differences into consideration when developing training materials for employees.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, HR serves as educator in training employees to understand and avoid sexual harassment in the first place.  If HR is able to properly communicate to employees what behavior is acceptable or unacceptable, HR may be able to prevent most sexual harassment situations before they arise.   The role of Human Resources in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is varied and complicated.  However, it is the most important role that any company has at its disposal in both addressing and avoiding sexual harassment disputes.


Australian Human Rights Commission (2012) Working without fear: Results of the 2012 Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey. AHRC, Sydney.

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DeLoach, Joe (2014) “HR Headaches to Avoid.”  Review of Optometry November 15th, 2014, 46-51.

Doll, Jessica L., Patrick J. Rosopa (2015) “Workplace romances: examining attitudes experience, conscientiousness, and policies.” Journal of Managerial Psychology 2015 30:4, 439-453

Gilbert, Jacqueline A., Deana M. Raffo, and Toto Sutarso. (2013) “Gender, conflict, and workplace bullying: is civility policy the silver bullet?” Journal of Managerial Issues 25.1 79+. Web. 31 July 2015.

McDonald, P., S. Charlesworth and T. Graham (2015) “Developing a framework of effective

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Walker B and RT Hamilton (2011) Employee-employer grievances: A review. International Journal of Management Reviews 13(1), 40–58.

Woska, William J. “Legal issues for HR professionals: workplace investigations.” (2013) Public Personnel Management Mar. 2013: 90+. Web. 3 Aug. 2015.