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What Is Quid Pro Quo Harassment in the Workplace

Posted on February 20, 2019 | Firm News

Sexual discrimination in the workplace is an unacceptable offense that comes in many forms. An employer or coworker who makes sexually suggestive comments, overt sexual remarks, or engages in any unwanted contact creates a hostile work environment for the victim. One of the most common forms of sexual harassment in the workplace is quid pro quo, a Latin phrase meaning “this for that” or “something for something.”

Understanding Quid Pro Quo

Some business leaders, executives, managers, and other authority figures in the workplace may attempt to leverage their positions to extract sexual favors from the employees they supervise or manage. This is highly unethical and predatory behavior, but some of those who commit this offense may not realize what they are doing is wrong.

An employer or other authority figure may not offer advancement or other work-related benefits in exchange for sexual favors. This is a broad rule that covers even subtle hints. An employer would also commit a quid pro quo violation by offering to exchange sexual favors in lieu of work-related disciplinary action. For example, an employee commits a workplace infraction that typically results in termination. The employee’s supervisor offers to ignore the violation and allow the employee to keep his or her job in exchange for sex. The supervisor has just committed sexual harassment via quid pro quo.

Clarifying Quid Pro Quo

U.S. employment laws prohibit authority figures from abusing their authority for sexual gratification from subordinates, but they do not completely restrict personal relationships between employees or even between employees and supervisors. However, the latter form of relationship can be incredibly problematic in most workplaces.

Many companies have published internal policies that advise strongly against workplace dating but they cannot completely restrict their employee’s personal lives. It is generally a bad idea for a manger or other authority figure in a company to start a personal relationship with a subordinate employee as these relationships often lead to discontent within the company or open the door to personal issues affecting the workplace.

When any manager or supervisor has a personal relationship with an employee, the relationship must exist separately from the employment dynamic. That is, the employer may not take adverse action against an employee for personal reasons, nor can the employer show favorable treatment toward an employee for personal reasons. Ultimately, it is always best for all parties involved to avoid employer-employee relationships.

Why Is Quid Pro Quo Dangerous?

An exchange of favors between consenting adults may seem like nobody else’s business, but such exchanges have troubling implications and effects in any workplace. The employee in the subordinate position may feel as though his or her job is at stake if he or she refuses a manager’s advances. This leads to questions regarding consent and coercion. If the employee rebuffs the manager, this opens the door to resentments that may affect the atmosphere in the department and the working relationship between the manager and the employee.

Most states in the U.S. follow at-will employment laws. An at-will employment statute means that any working relationship is subject to termination at the will of either party, with or without reason or prior notice. Essentially, an employer can terminate an employee’s contract at any time for practically any reason or without a reason. The exception to this would be a termination on the basis of the employee’s protected status, such as race, skin color, religion, or sexual orientation.

If an employee refuses a quid pro quo offer from a manager and the manager consequently fires the employee, it can be extremely difficult for the employee to prove his or her refusal was the reason for his or her termination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accepts and reviews reports of workplace discrimination and sexual harassment, and filing a report is generally the best option for handling a wrongful termination after a refusal of a quid pro quo offer.