What is Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is a form of sexual harassment where someone demands sexual favors in return for things like promotions or letters of recommendation. This differs from hostile environment sexual harassment, where a harasser makes the workplace unpleasant with sexual advances. Penalties for quid pro quo sexual harassment can vary, depending on the case, and they usually include discipline such as being removed from a position of authority.

A victim of quid pro quo sexual harassment may recieve negative performance reviews after rebuffing an advance.
A victim of quid pro quo sexual harassment may recieve negative performance reviews after rebuffing an advance.

This form of sexual harassment, which takes its name from the Latin term meaning "something for something," can work in several ways. A person in a position of power may punish someone for refusing sexual advances or for choosing to end a sexual relationship. Supervisors, instructors, and other people with the ability to make hiring and firing decisions can potentially commit quid pro quo sexual harassment. People may be denied accommodations, refused letters of reference, or otherwise hindered at work or in school by the person committing the harassment. They can also be told that special favors will be available in exchange for sexual activity.

Quid pro Quo sexual harassment may include special favors that are exchanged for sexual activity.
Quid pro Quo sexual harassment may include special favors that are exchanged for sexual activity.

Sometimes, quid pro quo sexual harassment is as blatant as telling the victim that sexual favors will be required for a promotion or other significant decision. In other cases, it is more subtle. The harasser may make sexual advances, be rebuffed, and then punish the victim by abusing authority. Likewise, someone may start to receive negative performance reviews and other consequences after choosing to end a sexual relationship with a supervisor. Concerns about sexual harassment situations lead many workplaces to place restrictions on sexual relationships where a power differential is involved.

A person who experiences quid pro quo sexual harassment can report it, triggering an investigation. The person under investigation may be temporarily suspended while the investigation takes place if there are concerns about retribution or further abuses of power if the person is left in place. At the conclusion of the investigation, the investigator will make recommendations about suspension, firing, and other penalties intended to prevent future incidents of sexual harassment.

If a workplace does not respond, the victim can potentially sue the workplace in court for allowing quid pro quo sexual harassment to occur, as well as suing the harasser for damages. Damage awards in such suits vary, depending on the specifics of the case, and may be quite high in cases of blatant and aggressive harassment. People who are experiencing sexual harassment should collect as much evidence as possible, including documentation like emails, memoranda, statements from witnesses, and recordings of conversations. All of this material can assist with an investigation and court case, if necessary.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I helped produce a video on sexual harassment in the workplace, and we had to scrap the original script because of so many changes in the law. It was difficult to come up with a good quid pro quo harassment definition that would be legally accurate a year from now. Sexual harassment claims are notoriously difficult to prove or win. Someone can still file an EEOC complaint, but quid pro quo often comes down to "he said/she said" in court.

After producing that video, I learned a lot about workplace harassment in general. The terms "hostile workplace environment" and "quid pro quo sexual harassment" are often used interchangeably, but legally they are different. If I'm the male boss of a company and I post sexually suggestive posters around the office and tell dirty jokes in front of female employees, I'm creating a hostile work environment.

If I tell one of my female subordinates there's only one "good" way of getting a raise, then I'm committing quid pro quo harassment.


I never experienced quid pro quo sexual harassment myself, but unfortunately I did witness it at one of my former jobs. There was an assistant manager who was in charge of scheduling the servers, and I noticed some of my favorite coworkers were only showing up a few days a week. I asked one of them privately why she wasn't working that many hours lately. She said the assistant manager was giving most of the good shifts to the servers he thought might "return the favor" with sex.

She made it clear that she was a married woman and she wasn't about to sacrifice her beliefs just to get better hours. He apparently got his revenge by scheduling her for the slowest hours of the day, and the least convenient days for a mother of two. She couldn't PROVE it was a punishment for not playing his quid pro quo game, but she still considered it workplace harassment.

All we knew to do was confront the assistant manager and ask him straight out about his scheduling method. At first he denied doing anything wrong, but then the head manager found old schedules and crunched the numbers. My friend was right. Her total number of working hours dropped sharply after he was put in charge of scheduling, and other employees, mostly younger females, started working the best shifts. The owner fired the assistant manager the next week, and a female server took over the scheduling.

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