While personal definitions of "sexual harrassment" may differ, legally, the definition is reasonably clear. As the eNotes essay, the link to which is below, notes, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing anti-sexual harrassment laws, defines it as follows:
"Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conducts of a sexual nature constitute (are) sexual harassment when: (1) submission to (agree to) . . . or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or (2) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile (threatening), or offensive working environment." [See also www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/sexual_harrassment.cfm]
The bar for defining "sexual harrassment" falls well below physical assault such as rape; unwanted comments of a sexual or gender-specific nature constitute sexual harrassment in the workplace.
How human resources directors administer anti-sexual harrassment policies is dependent upon the individual company and personnel, up to a point. A smart HR director will issue a document expressing in clear language the company's policy on sexual harrassment, with reference to federal guidelines and statutes, and require every employee to read and sign it. It really is that simple.
Less simple is the actual administration of anti-sexual harrassment policies and statutes in some instances. The challenge for the HR director is to investigate and determine the precise nature of the accusations or complaints that have been made by the offended person. As the EEOC guidelines note,
"although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harrassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it resuts in an adverse employment decision."
Consequently, the HR director, usually working with an attorney, has to decide whether the incident(s) in question rises to the level suggested in the above statement. It is usually recognized that isolated incidents that by definition do not suggest a pattern of inappropriate or illegal behavior should not necessarily result in legal action or termination of an individual's job. In such instances, a verbal reprimand may be all that is required. The role of the attorney in the process, though, is make the determination as to whether the line between legal but inappropriate and illegal has been crossed.