What is quid pro quo harassment?

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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This law has been crucial in shaping workplace policies across the United States by outlining what constitutes discrimination and providing recourse for individuals who have been subject to such discrimination.

Within the text of Title VII, two types of sexual harassment have been defined: a hostile work environment and quid pro quo harassment. Both types have the potential to dramatically impact a victim’s workplace experience and job security, but they manifest in distinctly different ways.

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What does Quid Pro Quo Mean?

Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that directly translates to: what (quid) for (pro) where (quo). More usefully translated, this phrase has a meaning close to: “this for that” or “something for something”.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines quid pro quo as: “something given or received for something else.” It signifies a reciprocal arrangement where one thing is given in return for another.

In and of itself, quid pro quo has no moral or ethical implications and denotes an exchange of some sort. However, while the phrase itself does not inherently denote any illicit or immoral connotation, in the context of workplace harassment it carries a much more nefarious implication.

What is Quid Pro Quo Harassment?

Workplace harassment has been a scourge in the professional world for years, often resulting in an unhealthy and emotionally distressing work environment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act specifically acknowledges and attempts to regulate this by defining two types of workplace harassment: a hostile work environment and quid pro quo harassment, the latter of which we’ll be looking at in more detail in this article.

What is the Meaning of Quid Pro Quo Harassment?

Quid pro quo harassment occurs in a professional setting when an employer, or someone in a position of power, offers or hints that they will offer job benefits (like promotions, salary hikes, or favorable career assignments) to an employee in exchange for sexual favors.

Quid pro quo harassment can also occur when the same person suggests or implements negative repercussions (like demotions, pay cuts, or unfavorable assignments) if the employee rejects sexual advances. This form of harassment does not require repeated incidents; a single substantial occurrence may constitute quid pro quo harassment.

Quid pro quo harassment vs hostile work environment harassment

While the lines between types of harassment may blur at times, hostile work environment harassment generally differs from quid pro quo harassment in that it is marked by a clear, persistent pattern of unwelcomed behavior that interferes with the victim’s ability to conduct their prescribed work duties. A hostile work environment may include pervasive unwanted sexual advances, verbal harassment and offensive remarks concerning protected characteristics (religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity), the display of severely offensive symbols or pictures, and physical altercations, all of which result in intimidation and significant duress.

Quid pro quo harassment, on the other hand, is demarcated by the idea of a person in a supervisory role proposing an “exchange”, sometimes presented in the positive (“if you do this I’ll do that”) or negative (“do this or else I’ll do that”). This type of harassment centers on inequitable positions and one party getting something from another, rather than simply harassing an individual based on some characteristic.

What are Some Examples of Quid Pro Quo Harassment?

Examples of quid pro quo harassment can vary greatly but they all entail a superior leveraging their power over a subordinate. Often considered the first quid pro quo ruling, the 1976, the case of Williams v. Saxbe found that the plaintiff, Diane Williams, had suffered negative consequences and eventual termination at work as a result of her refusal of the sexual advances of her supervisor, Harvey Brinson.

Another of the most famous quid pro quo cases was Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1998. In this case, the plaintiff Kimberly Ellerth was subjected to repeated explicit verbal commentary and even physical advances, insinuating that more sexually collusive behavior could improve her prospects at work. Though Ellerth eventually left her employer voluntarily, she was able to bring a case against her supervisor after the fact, successfully demonstrating that she had been subjected to illegal quid pro quo harassment.

Other real-world examples may be slightly less hostile but equally troubling. For instance, a manager may hint that an employee will receive a promotion if they agree to a date with the manager.

On the other end of the spectrum, quid pro quo harassment may occur in a far more direct manner, with a boss threatening to terminate an employee if they refuse to comply with inappropriate advances, or a hiring manager hinting that a job candidate may improve their chances of being hired by engaging in a sexual relationship or specific sexual activity.  

Is Quid Pro Quo Harassment a Form of Coercion Harassment?

A quid pro quo sexual harassment scenario is indeed a form of coercion harassment. Coercion harassment refers to situations where an individual is pressured into doing something they’re uncomfortable with through threats or intimidation.

In quid pro quo harassment, the coercion typically comes in the form of hints, requests or demands for sexual favors in exchange for job-related benefits or to avoid an adverse employment decision.

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Is Quid Pro Quo Harassment Illegal?

Yes, quid pro quo harassment is absolutely illegal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, particularly Title VII, explicitly prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

This includes sexual harassment, and therefore quid pro quo harassment, which falls under the category of sex discrimination. Managers who engage in this type of harassment can face severe legal consequences and, if the behavior is known but left unchecked or unaddressed, their employers may also face significant penalties.

What is Unique about Quid Pro Quo Harassment that Separates it from Other Types of Harassment?

One unique characteristic of quid pro quo harassment is the explicit exchange aspect—promising benefits or threatening detriments in return for sexual favors. This differentiates it from a hostile work environment, another form of harassment where the offensive conduct is pervasive and severe enough to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, but there’s no explicit ‘exchange’ involved.

Another aspect that is unique in this sort of harassment is the purported “exchange of value”. This can often provide, in the eyes of some individuals, a justification or smoke screen, that obfuscates the true nature of the harassment. In cases where the requests being made by a manager are relatively benign, such as, “if you grab dinner with me, I’ll consider you for that promotion (wink)”, the quid pro quo nature of the harassment can be particularly confusing for the victim who may be unsure of their legal standing in the circumstances.

Additionally, unlike many other types of harassment, a single incident of quid pro quo harassment can be sufficient to establish a legal claim if it is notably severe or egregious. This is a deviation from the norm as verifiable harassment is typically characterized by persistent, repetitive conduct.

Understanding the implications and characteristics of quid pro quo harassment is crucial in promoting a safer, more respectful, and equitable work environment. Wise employers will define succinct company policy, clearly communicate company sexual harassment training requirements and expectations to all supervisory employees, and respond swiftly to allegations of abusive behavior in the workplace.

Arming employees with training and knowledge empowers individuals to recognize, report, and challenge unethical and illegal behavior effectively and without fear of reprisals.

These efforts help reduce emotional distress, build a safe work environment, create a culture of respect, protect the legal rights of individuals, and create a workplace in which employees can thrive. 


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