Workplace Harassment: Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment vs. a Hostile Work Environment

P AdobeStock/lightwavemedia

woman upset at work

Kristina Udice
Kristina Udice
In the wake of scandals about sexual harassment and hostility from men like Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski and Bill O’Reilly, you might be wondering what sexual harassment in the workplace truly entails. 

What does sexual harassment mean?

For those who are a little unsure about the definition of sexual harassment, it is, in brief, described as the harassment of any person in the workplace or in a professional or social setting by another person. The behavior in question involves lewd or obscene comments, and unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate acts. 
This definition, and sexual harassment itself, can be broken down into two categories: 
The difference between the two is striking, but one is no more or less important than the other. It is common to see people roll their eyes, scoff or make excuses when they hear about alleged harassment in the workplace. As a result, it's all too common that the victim stays quiet and sometimes lets it continue if it’s something that they can temporarily just tune out or walk away from.
And people actually get angry when confronted with the notion of workplace sexual harassment occurring around them— not because it’s happening, but because people dare to bring it up and make unwanted sexual conduct a topic of conversation that must be dealt with.
Why is there this stigma about sexual harassment? Why don’t people take it seriously? For one, they might not completely understand it. So here’s a breakdown of the two types of sexual harassment and what can be done to combat this unwanted behavior.

What is the literal meaning of quid pro quo?

The literal translation of the Latin phrase quid pro quo is “something for something,” or “this for that.” This is helpful for understanding this type of harassment because quid pro quo sexual harassment is the kind of harassment that requires someone in a position of power to offer you something in return for a sexual favor of their choosing.

What is quid pro quo sexual harassment?

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is likely the type of harassment people are most familiar with. It’s the kind that is seen in pop culture, splashed across television screens and nestled into iconic cinematic scenes. It is also the most widely recognized type of sexual harassment.
This type of harassment entails a harasser that is a superior — whether it’s a supervisor, manager, professor, or any other person of power — taking advantage of their power over an individual and demanding sexual favors for job benefit. For instance, a manager might offer an employee a highly-prized project or deal which is contingent upon some kind of sexual favor in return. Even if the manager doesn't lay out those terms explicitly, they can sometimes make it clear that the employee's success and progress depends upon their compliance. 
While this type of harassment doesn’t necessarily have to be between a subordinate and a person of power, it usually is, as the person of power has something that would entice the victim to give in to demands of a sexual and degrading nature — or the victim simply feels she would risk losing opportunities if she doesn't go with the flow.
People in power are able to offer raises, benefits, special deals, recommendations and certain shifts — so it can be easier for them to get away with this behavior by offering these incentives. This type of harassment is also effective for the harasser because they can also offer a negative consequence to not following through.
They can threaten a demotion or the firing of the employee. They can assign them grueling assignments or bad shifts or threaten bad reviews come time for performance reviews.
When it comes to quid pro quo sexual harassment, all it takes is one instance of an inappropriate sexual nature related to job benefit. One offer. One question. One threat. This act in and of itself is illegal and can and should be reported immediately. And if the threat is reported and nothing happens, the behavior continues, or the employee loses their standing, the employer itself can be seen as liable. 
Many times, the incident gets remedied in-house with no legal involvement. But it is the victims’ right to take it a step further and make this conduct a criminal offense.
Once a sexual harassment claim has been made, it is then up to the employer to prove that the incident didn’t happen as opposed to the victim proving it did, according to the legal system. Compensation for this harassment includes wages, benefits or employment lost due to the harassment, damages for emotional distress, and even punitive damages if the harassment was severe and entered into the physical.
Hostile environment harassment is a little more of a grey area in the realm of workplace harassment, but it can be just as detrimental for its victims depending on the varying degrees of hostile conduct.

What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile environment in the workplace is characterized by severe or pervasive, distracting behavior that is frequent and unwanted which affects employment and performance. It includes recurring unwanted and inappropriate sexual comments, sexual advances, quid pro quo-like requests and more based on sex and gender. And the thing about hostile working environments is that the sexual comments and advances don’t necessarily have to be about you.
What makes a hostile working environment is behavior that makes people feel uncomfortable and are of a sexual nature. This can include lewd jokes or obscene material being brought into the office, asking repeatedly for dates and getting in the way physically of others on purpose. 
Unlike with quid pro quo sexual harassment, hostile work environment sexual harassment needs to be consistent or pervasive. It can not be one isolated incident of unwanted or uncomfortable behavior. There also doesn’t need to be any favors or contingencies involved with hostile work environment sexual harassment.
But, hostile work environment harassment can still occur even if the sexual behavior isn’t innately directed at the victim in question.
This means that consistent and unwelcome sexual jokes that are constantly being made around an employee but not directed at them could still be harassment. A secret affair between a supervisor and a subordinate that leads to perceived advantages for said employee is another example of harassment.

When it comes time to prove it

It’s trickier to prove hostile environment harassment because it is considered the fault of the employer if the behavior continues. Therefore, it must be proven that this behavior was of a harassing nature, but also that the employer knew and didn’t do enough to discontinue the behavior.
With both types of sexual harassment, however, it is important to speak up and know what constitutes this harassment. Whether it’s a hostile work environment, or quid pro quo sexual harassment, there are protections put in place that people can look to for support and freedom from this verbal assault. 
There is nothing demeaning or shameful about filing a sexual harassment claim or taking this sex discrimination up with supervisors. It is part of your civil rights to be treated equally and fairly in the workplace, sans discrimination. Dealing with severe or pervasive conditions, and having to put up with unwelcome sexual conduct from supervisors or fellow employees is not ok, and all employees should know.

So what’s the difference between quid pro quo and hostile work environment?

In short, quid pro quo sexual harassment is when an employer or person of power makes employment, benefits or other perks contingent on sexual favors. It’s a supervisor suggesting you should go on a date with him if you want to be picked for the next big project.
Hostile work environment sexual harassment is when other employees — either above you or not — make uncomfortable or sexual comments, jokes or perform actions that create an intimidating and hostile environment.

Next steps: What to do if you're a victim of quid pro quo sexual harassment or a hostile work environment

1. Say something ASAP and start the paper trail by documenting everything.

As soon as possible after the incident, let the person know what he or she said or did what not appropriate. If possible, have another coworker, HR representative or manager present to prove the conversation happened. After saying something, cover yourself by sending an email to HR and/or your supervisor explaining the incident, time and date and what steps you took to remedy the situation.
This can help build your case if the behavior continues.

2. Report it. 

If you don't feel comfortable telling talking to the harasser directly, report the behavior or incident to your supervisor, HR representative or another appropriate party. In many workplaces, your report will not be confidential, so be aware when you report an incident your harasser might find out in the long run regardless if you confront him or her face-to-face or not.

3. If you're not sure what to do, consult your employee's handbook or as a mentor or fellow employee.

You can also check state laws. For example, in 2018, New York passed a law requiring all employers provide sexual harassment training.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for dealing with quid pro quo sexual harassment or a toxic environment at work? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!