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What actually happens after you’ve made a sexual harassment claim to HR?

HRM takes a look into how HR handled some high-profile sexual harassment cases. Are they typical? HRM has set up an anonymous way to share your experiences.

“I filed a formal complaint but HR didn’t do anything.” How often have we heard this line uttered in relation to cases of workplace bullying or sexual harassment? A lot.

HR professionals are often painted as the mouthpiece for their executive team; there to protect those in power and silence those challenging that power.

To be fair, this is often an accurate assessment. There have been cases were an HR department has not only ignored an issue, but contributed to it. On the other hand, there are some HR managers that bravely push for a sexual harassment case to be taken seriously by their executives; fighting an uphill battle against those writing their pay cheques.

When there’s no obvious outcome from a complaint, it’s often assumed HR simply did nothing. But there’s more going on behind closed doors than we’re privy to.

HRM wants to hear the real stories about what happens when an HR professional receives a sexual harassment claim. This is where you come in. We want to know about the challenges you faced and the processes you underwent. There’s a tendency for the media to only focus on the bad stories and while we still want to hear about those, we are also interested in hearing about cases that have a positive outcome.

At the end of this article, we ask that you take a few moments to share your experiences with us, with an option to do so anonymously, to help us better understand the landscape of how sexual harassment cases are handled in Australian workplaces.

Alternatively, if you’d like to make a submission right now, here is the link.

Uber employee never wanted to deal with HR again

Susan Fowler’s 14-month experience at Uber HQ is a prime example of HR acting against the best interest of an organisation by favouring the agenda of a few individuals in power.

Fowler was an engineer at Uber from November 2015 until December 2016; a job that she reportedly loved. Following a few weeks of training, she was given the opportunity to join the team of her choice – she chose one that best aligned with her expertise. On her first official day, her manager sent her a string of online messages detailing his open relationship status. He claimed his girlfriend was easily able to find other sexual partners, whereas he wasn’t having as much luck.

“It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR,” said Fowler in her viral blog post outlining the story.

HR’s response

Her story is one that shows what it looks like when HR gets every step wrong.

“I had pretty standard expectations of how they would handle situations like this. I expected that I would report him to HR, they would handle the situation appropriately, and then life would go on – unfortunately, things played out quite a bit differently,” she said.

HR told Fowler that because this was the man’s first offense (it wasn’t) they “wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake” (again, it wasn’t, he was a repeat offender). The man received nothing more than a formal warning and a “stern” talking to.

Unfortunately, this response is consistent with data from the Australian Human Rights Commissions’ (AHRC) fourth survey into sexual harassment. Only 19 per cent of respondents said their formal complaints resulted in any consequences for the perpetrator –  usually just a formal warning – and 45 per cent of victims claim nothing changed as a result of them raising the issue.

Uber’s management told Fowler she could either move to another team or remain in the same team as the offending, “high performing” male who they said would likely give her a poor performance review and “there was nothing they could do about that”.

She remarked that it didn’t seem like she was being given much of a choice, but wanted to stay on the team she’d originally chosen. It was in the best interests of the company too, as this was an area in which she excelled.

Someone from the HR team told her if the offending male did end up giving her a poor performance review, it wouldn’t count as retaliation from his end, as they had given her the option to change teams. Fowler tried to escalate things further but got nowhere.

This was just the tip of the iceberg for Fowler’s terrible experience with Uber’s HR department, you can read our full article on Fowler’s story here.

The Weinstein effect: “the most excruciating and uncomfortable hour of my life”.

The story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual wrongdoings have been widely reported on. His predatory behaviour dates back decades, recently resulting in many, many women coming forward to share their traumatising experiences; reducing the Hollywood tycoon’s reputation to a crumbling pile of mistrust and disgust.

The majority of Weinstein’s behaviour took place in some sort of work situation. He would often tell actors to come to his hotel room under the pretence of discussing their careers. But some of the allegations against Weinstein took place in a more traditional workplace.

And while the media have dissected the reasons behind Weinstein’s behaviour, there have been less reports into the role HR played in his company.

HR’s response

In February this year, the then New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, filed a civil rights lawsuit against both Weinstein and his company. The company failed to protect its employees from Weinstein’s “vicious and exploitative” treatment, said Schneiderman.

“[The company] knew how pervasive it was and not only did they fail to stop it, they enabled it and covered it up,” he said.

In a somewhat ironic and disturbing turn of events, Schneiderman was then accused of physically abusive behaviour himself in an exposé from The New Yorker, prompting him to resign from his position just three hours after the article was published.

The New Yorker also shared an exclusive story about a complaint to the Weinstein Company’s HR department from a former receptionist named Emily Nestor.

Nestor told The New Yorker that Weinstein had approached her on her first day, cleared the other people out of the room and asked for her phone number. He then invited her out for a drink, which she declined, instead suggesting a morning coffee as she’d heard from friends of Weinstein’s reputation.

“I was very afraid of him. And I knew how well connected he was. And how if I pissed him off then I could never have a career in that industry,” recalled Nestor.

“I dressed very frumpy,” she said, adding that the meeting was “the most excruciating and uncomfortable hour of my life”.

After Weinstein had propositioned her, offering to mentor her in exchange for sex and put her up in his London office as his “girlfriend”, Nestor confided in a friend who alerted the company’s HR department, which Nestor soon found out was notorious for inaction.

Several Weinstein employees told the journalist about HR’s problems, stating “that the company’s human-resources department was utterly ineffective; one female executive described it as a place where you went to when you didn’t want anything to get done”.

Nestor, who reported feeling traumatised by the experience, ended up leaving the business and decided not to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, all due to Weinstein’s actions.

While these two examples are from the US, and aren’t reflective of the entire HR profession, unfortunately they aren’t rare. Both of these women experienced overt sexual advances on their very first day in a new job and the HR departments complete lack of action is inexcusable.

While it’s not always an easy thing to do, those working in HR should take the advice of AHRI’s CEO Lyn Goodear, who says: “Chief human resource officers who find themselves reporting to chief executives who demand that their senior executives put allegiance to them above allegiance to the organisation need to exercise the full range of their professional skills. That includes the capacity to be persuasive and, when required, to be brave.”

Please take a few minutes to share your stories with us here, or email us at

Learn how to prevent and manage sexual harassment within the workplace and find out what your responsibilities are as a manager.

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Catherine Cahill
Catherine Cahill

As with every profession, there are good and bad HR professionals (and everything in between). However, an issue that the HR profession must address, is the personal cost to an HR professional when they advise the Board or the CEO that a serious sexual harassment or bullying claim has been proven, and the decision makers choose not to act. HR either stands their ground and ultimately loses their job (this happened to me early in my career), or they are compelled to deliver an outcome to the people involved that they know is unacceptable (and probably, unlawful). When they choose… Read more »

Barb Thorne
Barb Thorne

Kate, your article seems to side with the sensationalist journalism which paints HR in a very bad light. After repeating what the popular media says you claim “To be fair, this is often an accurate assessment”. After 38 years in HR, working across many sectors and companies, I strongly dispute that your claim is fair. I have never hidden or not acted on a sexual harassment claim, nor have I ever been asked to do so by management. None of my HR colleagues have done this either, in fact we have acted when the victim has not had the courage… Read more »


I agree with Barb’s comments. I have over 25 years experience, and I have always acted ethically and responsibly on every sexual harassment claim that I have dealt with. It is a shame that you prefer to focus on the sensational rather than the reality. Where does it all go wrong? Personally I think the problems in HR are a reflection on the lack of business experience many of the young practitioners have, along with the constant HR navel gazing – seriously, if we are still talking about having ‘a seat at the table’, being taken seriously, or struggling to… Read more »

Dr Rebecca Michalak
Dr Rebecca Michalak

The evidence that HR is a major problem on this front is unfortunately fairly overwhelming, and the sooner that contribution is owned by our profession, the sooner we can fix it. Not to say exceptions don’t exist; these rare exceptions prove the rule. However – Far too easy to (self-appraise!) our own performance as being the exception to the rule, and or take exceptions as bring the norm, which ignores the problem. Get your workers to share what THEY experienced, not your view on how ‘well you or your close colleagues did’. Crux is evidence (examples of workers) indicating HR… Read more »

Catherine Cahill
Catherine Cahill

I would like to address Rebecca’s comment, “The evidence that HR is a major problem on this front is unfortunately fairly overwhelming”. You have only sited evidence based on Workers’ Compensation claims – which by definition are matters that caused injury, and so, are matters that went wrong. Unless you are including data on matters resolved effectively, you are drawing a conclusion that is not sound. As any HR professional can tell you, we resolve many, many more matters effectively than are ever publicly known. Only the ones that are not resolved effectively end up as WorkCover claims, or Fair… Read more »

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