Know How To Recognize Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment at Work

Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, quid pro quo harassment is one of two forms sexual harassment in the workplace; the other type being hostile work environment harassment. It occurs when a superior requests or demands a sexual favor from an employee in exchange for an employment benefit.

Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase which translates to “something for something” or “this for that.” It is normally used to indicate an exchange of benefits between two parties.

A quid pro quo by itself does not automatically indicate illicit or controversial activity. When it is done to exert undue influence on a subordinate in a workplace setting, however, that’s when things start to become problematic.

It should also be pointed out that the perpetrator and victim can come from any gender. While it is often a male superior that initiates the offense on a female subordinate, that is not always the case. The perpetrator and victim may also be of the same gender.

Instances of quid pro quo harassment

Quid pro quo sexual harassment in the workplace can manifest itself in different ways. Here are some instances to help you identify it.

    • Scenario 1: Repeatedly asking an employee out to dinner despite refusal – A supervisor invites an employee to a private dinner. The employee declines. Afterwards, the supervisor extends the invitation a few more times while letting the employee know they could be rewarded for showing up.


    • Scenario 2: Implying potential termination if inappropriate requests are ignored – A manager provides a hint to an employee about upcoming job cuts and austerity measures that the company will soon implement. The supervisor makes a sly comment that the employee’s job prospects may look brighter if they start responding positively to the supervisor’s sexual advances.


    • Scenario 3: Showing favoritism to employees who submit to inappropriate demands – A supervisor solicits sexual favors from a few subordinates and offers them more paid time offs, higher salaries, and other perks. Meanwhile, the supervisor deprives the rest of the team of these benefits since they refuse to partake in the illicit quid pro quo.


  • Scenario 4: Asking how much a subordinate would charge to perform lewd acts – A superior invites a subordinate to watch an adult, erotic film together. The superior expresses his or her willingness to award a cash incentive to the subordinate to re-enact the lewd scenes in the movie.

Identifying quid pro quo harassment isn’t always easy

In many workplace situations, it can be tricky to establish a clear case of quid pro quo harassment mainly because of the complexity of verbal and written interactions.

What may be construed by one person as an inappropriate conversation could simply be humorous or harmless banter to another. Look out for red flags that may warrant further investigation, such as:

    • An underperforming employee who suddenly receives a promotion while other coworkers have remained in their current positions.


    • A manager exhibiting an unusual fondness for a particular employee while making comments about their physical appearance.


    • A strange closeness between a supervisor and subordinate as rumors persist about a potentially more personal relationship.


  • A degree of ill feeling or hostility between a manager and employee that has nothing to do with the performance metrics or other work matters.

While certain interactions at work may not strictly qualify as quid pro quo sexual harassment, instances such as the following may also constitute other forms of harassment or offenses.

    • A direct supervisor and subordinate are in a consensual relationship which does not impact employment benefits or decisions.


    • A manager from one department is engaged in a consensual relationship with an employee from a different department. The manager does not hold sway over the employee’s key performance indicators.


    • An employee makes inappropriate sexual propositions to another employee of the same rank. While there is no “this for that” exchange, harassment may still occur. Additionally, the employer could also be liable if there was a failure in instituting corrective action.


  • An illicit quid pro quo for employment benefit takes place between a supervisor and subordinate, but there are no sexual favors involved.

Consult a legal professional if you suspect harassment in your workplace

Whether it’s quid pro quo or otherwise, if you or someone you know is on the receiving end of such terrible behavior, seek out professional legal advice as soon as possible.

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