Understanding ‘quid pro quo’ & ‘hostile work environment’

Posted in Quid Pro Quo,Sexual Harassment on December 11, 2014

Individuals who have been victims of unwelcome behavior at work often wonder if what they experienced is sexual harassment. They may be hesitant to complain if they are unsure, even if they know they want the behavior to stop.

There are numerous behaviors that can constitute sexual harassment, and context is important. But fundamentally, there are two distinct types of sexual harassment. They are “quid pro quo” harassment and “hostile work environment.”

Quid pro quo is a Latin term meaning “this for that.” If your boss says that you must have sex with him in order to get the raise you wanted (or to avoid being fired), that would be a clear example of quid pro quo. This illegal form of harassment occurs whenever sex, sexual favors or tolerance of sexual harassment is asserted as a condition of employment or an employment benefit. You should know that a quid pro quo claim can be pursued after a single incident. It does not have to be a pattern of harassment.

The other, broader category of sexual harassment is hostile work environment. Many different behaviors can qualify as HWE sexual harassment if they are frequent or severe enough to result in an offensive working environment. Examples include inappropriate comments about you or your gender, unwanted/unwelcome touching, crude jokes and emails, exposure to pornography in the workplace and unwanted advances from a colleague or boss.

It should be pretty clear whether or not your experience constituted quid pro quo harassment, but hostile work environment can sometimes be a gray area. Even if you don’t report the harassment right away, it is a good idea to keep documentation of what you experienced and when. You can then consult with a member of human resources and, if necessary, an employment law attorney.