Quid pro quo is a term that doesn’t always relate to sexual harassment. But in terms of employment issues, it’s a term that is used very often in this context. It refers to a specific type of sexual harassment that someone may experience, especially when there is a difference in power between two people in the workplace.
At its base, quid pro quo just means: “something for something.” It is the act of giving (or asking or demanding) something to someone else in exchange for a thing that is desired. It is a trade or an exchange, and a power imbalance may mean that one person feels coerced or pressured into making such an exchange, whether they actually want to or not.
Why the power imbalance matters
Say that the owner of a company is in charge of giving out raises or promotions. One of their employees approaches them, perhaps asking for a raise or applying to get a promotion within the workplace. The owner of the company then tells this person that they will get the promotion or they will get the raise in exchange for sexual favors. Employees should be given promotions or raises based on their performance. Instead of taking this commonsense approach, the company owner in this example is trying to use their position of power to manipulate an employee for their personal benefit.
There’s also another layer to a quid pro quo approach to relationships when it happens in employment situations, which is that the employee may fear negative ramifications if they refuse to comply. If their boss pressures them to stay late at the office and have an intimate relationship, and the employee won’t do it, they could risk being fired, getting demoted, having their hours cut or something else of this nature.
Consensual workplace relationships are often perfectly harmless, but only when both people feel free to express their true desires for that relationship. If one person is being manipulated or pressured into the relationship, then the situation can cross a line into harassment.
What legal options exist?
Of course, sexual harassment itself is illegal, as is retaliating by firing an employee who has refused an intimate relationship. This is a violation of an employee’s rights. Those who have experienced quid pro quo harassment need to know about all the legal options at their disposal, as their situation is almost certainly actionable. Seeking legal guidance is a good way to get started.