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The power dynamics of quid pro quo sexual harassment

On Behalf of | Feb 28, 2024 | Employment Law

In recent years, a lot of the attention on sexual harassment in the workplace has focused on hostile work environments, where unwelcome sexual conduct, comments and behavior create a work environment that is deeply offensive intimidating and hostile. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that “quid pro quo” sexual harassment has stopped. 

What is quid pro quo harassment?

Quid pro quo is a Latin term meaning “something for something,” and that pretty much describes the essence of this type of sexual harassment. It occurs whenever someone in a position of authority – such as an employer, manager or team leader – ties their employment-related decisions to a subordinate’s submission to their sexual advances.

In practice, that might mean something like:

  • Advancement in exchange for sexual favors: For example, a manager may imply or outright state that an employee’s bonus, raise or promotion is contingent on their willingness to provide sexual favors.
  • Favorable treatment because of sexual compliance: In some cases, a person in authority may promise an employee favorable treatment, like a better work schedule or special privileges, in exchange for their sexual submission.
  • Threats or retaliation for rejection: This is another side of quid pro quo harassment, in which an employer punishes (or threatens to punish) an employee for refusing their sexual advances. They may promise to torpedo the victim’s career (or the career of someone close to the victim, like their parent, child or spouse) if they refuse their sexual advances.

Unlike a hostile work environment, which can start from any direction, quid pro quo harassment almost always comes from “the top down,” since it relies on the abuser having power over the victim’s career or future. Victims often experience emotional distress, anxiety and a compromised sense of professional security and trust that affects them deeply for years to come. That’s why it is so important for victims of quid pro quo harassment to learn more about their legal rights.