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What is quid pro quo harassment in the workplace?


Have you ever heard the Latin phrase quid pro quo? It literally means "something for something." And while you can use this particular phrase in a variety of circumstances, when used in the workplace it usually involves allegations of sexual harassment. In fact, quid pro quo sexual harassment is one of the two types of workplace harassment claims that fall under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — the other being hostile work environment harassment.

In most cases, quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor seeks sexual favors from a worker in return for some type of job benefit — such as a raise, better hours, promotion, etc. — or to avoid some type of detriment like a pay cut, demotion, poor performance review, etc.

Not only is quid pro quo sexual harassment prohibited by Title VII, but it can happen to anyone in the workplace, regardless of gender.

How do employees prove quid pro quo harassment?

Employees must be able to prove certain elements if they wish to hold their employer legally responsible for quid pro quo sexual harassment in the workplace. And, while every case is different, the elements for proving quid pro quo harassment usually include:

  • The employee must show they are a member of a protected class, which, in this case, simply means that federal law — that is, Title VII — expressly protects the employee and all other employees from workplace discrimination on the basis of sex.
  • The employee was the target of unwelcomed sexual advances from another employee — typically a supervisor — or company officer.
  • The harassment was sexually motivated by the harasser.
  • The employee's reaction to the sexual advances negatively impacted some aspect of their employment, such as compensation or a promotion/demotion.
  • The employer is liable for the harassment under the legal principle of respondeat superior, meaning the alleged harasser had authority over the employer, either as their direct supervisor or the alleged harasser was in a position to influence the terms or conditions of the employee's employment.

It's important to note, however, that existing employees aren't the only ones who can claim quid pro quo harassment in the workplace. Indeed, job applicants may also bring a claim in certain situations, such as when a hiring supervisor promises an interviewee a job, but only if the interviewee agrees to their sexual advances.

Are threats enough to prove quid pro quo harassment?

As mentioned above, one thing an employee would need to show in order to prove quid pro quo harassment is that their reaction to their supervisor's sexual advances negatively impacted their employment is some way.

What happens if a supervisor threatens to do something, but they never actually follow through? For example, imagine a situation in which a supervisor says they will demote or fire an employee if the employee refuses to submit to their sexual advances.

What happens if the supervisor doesn't actually do anything after the employee rejects them? Does the employee still have a claim for quid pro quo sexual harassment? In most cases, no, the employee would not have a quid pro quo claim.

In fact, quid pro quo harassment generally requires some type of actual, tangible employment consequence for the employee following their refusal to submit to their harassing supervisor. And, unfulfilled threats that are never realized typically aren't enough. So, while situations such as these may first appear to involve quid pro quo harassment, they usually don't.

However, this type of harassment will generally still warrant a claim for hostile work environment — meaning the company still might not be off the hook, even if the supervisor doesn't follow through with their threats.

How can companies try to help prevent quid pro quo sexual harassment?

Companies can take steps to minimize quid pro quo sexual harassment from happening in their workplace by having clear policies in place — and, more importantly, enforcing them. Some of the things they can do include:

  • Create and maintain a written equal employment opportunity policy prohibiting sexual harassment and retaliation and make sure this policy is readily available to employees.
  • Develop a complaint procedure for workers subjected to quid pro quo sexual harassment.
  • Designate a way for employees to report complaints anonymously and confidentially.
  • Effectively and quickly respond to complaints.
  • Discreetly investigate allegations and impose disciplinary action where appropriate.
  • Circulate and post the quid pro quo sexual harassment policy.
  • Have all company leadership show strong disapproval of such conduct.
  • Provide employee trainings on company sexual harassment policies, including trainings for supervisors so they know disciplinary action will be taken if they violate the policy.

These are just a few of the many things that companies can do to encourage a healthy working environment for all employees; not to mention prevent harassment before it's too late.

Staying compliant with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and its policy on quid pro quo sexual harassment may seem straightforward, the ambiguity can come when the claims occur and it becomes a complicated web of crisscrossing allegations.

If you would like to keep up on the nuisances of quid pro quo harassment cases, you might want to start by trying Practical Law for free for seven days. It has all the resources you will need to understand these types of claims inside and out.

The content appearing on this website is not intended as, and shall not be relied upon as, legal advice. It is general in nature and may not reflect all recent legal developments. Thomson Reuters is not a law firm and an attorney-client relationship is not formed through your use of this website. You should consult with qualified legal counsel before acting on any content found on this website.

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