HR Management & Compliance

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Quid Pro Quo Versus Hostile Work Environment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a topic often met with either a snicker or an eye roll—it brings to mind a culture where inappropriate jokes and gender-based comments are the norm. But the reality of sexual harassment is serious, and it happens every day in our workplaces. Often, it’s not as obvious as inappropriate jokes (but sometimes it is), and it affects employees every day.

Do your employees and supervisors understand what constitutes sexual harassment? Do you provide training on it?* Does everyone understand your antiharassment policy? Do they know the difference between the two primary types: quid pro quo and hostile work environment? Let’s take a look at the two types of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Quid Pro Quo Versus Hostile Work Environment

Let’s take a look at the difference between the two main types of sexual harassment in the workplace: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo is the type of harassment that occurs when some type of employment benefit is made contingent on sexual favors in some capacity. For example, this might be a supervisor offering a promotion if an employee will meet his or her sexual demands.

Usually this type of sexual harassment, by its nature, occurs between someone in a position of power and a subordinate. This is because the person in a position of power has the ability to confer employment benefits. Employment benefits in this context might include:

  • Favorable performance reviews or recommendations,
  • Promotions,
  • Raises, and
  • Sought-after work assignments or work shifts.

This type of sexual harassment can also occur when there is a threat of negative work consequences for refusing to confer sexual favors. For example, this might mean someone is threatened with job loss, demotion, bad performance reviews, unfavorable shifts, less desirable project assignments, and so on.

A single incidence of quid pro quo sexual harassment is illegal and can be the grounds for a lawsuit.

With quid pro quo harassment, the employer can also be found legally liable for the actions of the supervisor who commits this act because supervisors are deemed to be acting on behalf of the employer.

Hostile work environment is the type of sexual harassment that occurs when there is frequent or pervasive unwanted sexual comments, advances, requests, or other similar conduct. It can also occur when there is other verbal or physical conduct that is sexual in nature. This could include:

  • Displays of inappropriate or offensive materials;
  • Sexual jokes;
  • Interference with someone’s ability to move freely;and
  • Persistent, unwanted interactions, such as asking for dates continually.

In general, this type of conduct must be unwelcome and either frequent or pervasive (or both) to be considered a hostile environment. It is not usually deemed a hostile environment if the activity in question was an isolated occurrence or a simple attempt at initiating a sexual relationship that was not reciprocated nor repeated. Whether or not this criterion (unwelcome, frequent, pervasive) has been met is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Unlike quid pro quo harassment, a hostile work environment does not require any employment benefit to be at risk. Since it is not tied to the promise or threat of particular employment actions, this type of sexual harassment is found across all levels of employees.

Another important distinction here is that inappropriate behavior between employees may also create a hostile work environment for other employees who were not actually the target of the behavior.

In order for the employer to be held liable for hostile work environment harassment that occurs between two employees (neither of whom is a supervisor), typically it must be shown that the employer either knew or should have known about the situation and did not take steps to stop or prevent it from occurring. If the employer did take immediate steps to stop the situation once it was brought to light, and especially if the employer had also taken steps to prevent it, the employer may have a defense. If the supervisor is the harasser, however, the employer typically can be held liable by default.

Most experts recommend that employers take actions as soon as behavior becomes “inappropriate,” not waiting until it becomes “illegal.”

*Note: in some states, providing sexual harassment training is mandatory rather than simply prudent. Be sure to check your local laws if you’re unsure whether this applies to you.


About Bridget Miller:

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.

4 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Quid Pro Quo Versus Hostile Work Environment”

  1. Sexual harassment in workplace is becoming a more common issue these days and has turned to be a dismay for women as the percentage of women who face harassment over men has got a major difference in figures.

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