Quid Pro Quo in Workplace Harassment

Some forms of workplace harassment are derived from concepts that have long existed elsewhere in society. In those other places, their legitimacy and usage can be both openly accepted and deeply questioned. The basic idea of that concept may be present to some degree in a non-harassment form within the same space-the workplace-where it can be used to do harm. The main difference, in those cases, is the practice of the concept itself and how the elements are interpreted in that context.

Quid pro quo is one such form that has been viewed as both beneficial and harmful throughout its usage in history. When used as a form of harassment, it can be highly abusive and damaging for companies that allow it to go unchecked. This article will explore what is involved in quid pro quo harassment, a little bit of its history, and the circumstances that make it possible. The prevalence, identifiers, and prevention tactics applicable to it will also be discussed.

  What Is It? 

Quid pro quo typically involves someone doing something for someone else with the expectation that they will return the favor. It's an exchange, so to speak, that one person expects to be completed without qualms. While it may sound very simple and non-threatening-after all, isn't it polite to do something nice as a thank you for someone who did something nice for you?-that's often not the case. In the workplace, quid pro quo is often used by those with authority to make questionable demands of their employees in return for something beneficial to the employee.1 As those demands are often highly sexual in nature, quid pro quo is frequently viewed as a version of sexual harassment. It can, however, have non-sexual connotations.

Instances of quid pro quo harassment can sometimes come across as a kind of blackmail, since there is often a sense of "do this or else" mentality to the demands. An employer who threatens to fire an employee if they don't accept the employer's sexual advances could be seen as such. As the employer has the authority and control over the conditions of the person's employment, it is also an abuse of power. With the example, the circumstances can be viewed as something much worse if the employee desperately needs to keep their job and/or there are legitimate reasons to fire them. In that instance, the leverage that the employer already has (authority, power, etc.) increases.

  •          By Any Other Name-The phrase "quid pro quo" is something that has long been a part of the lexicon (more on that later), but it's usage in modern conversation has seen a lot of substitutions. In Latin, quid pro quo translates as "something for something" and the phrase is just one of many used for that meaning.2 Other names that have been used for quid pro quo include trade-off, measure for measure, tit for tat, and an eye for an eye.3 The idiom "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" and its variations have been used in similar context and at times are viewed as an synonym for quid pro quo. So while you may not have heard "quid pro quo" used, you most likely have heard some of its other names instead.

    Due to its association with sexual harassment, quid pro quo harassment falls under the same legal standing as all other harassment forms even if the circumstances are not sexual in nature. Thus it is illegal when used in that context, with enforcement of the laws and reports of instances being handled by the EEOC. Claimants seeking to report instances of quid pro quo harassment have to be able to prove that it meets the requirements under law(s), and the charge must be filed within 180 days.4 This means that something related to the victim's job (e.g. benefits, salary, promotions, etc.) was offered in exchange for or contingent upon their agreement to do something for their harasser.5 Documentation and a clear understanding of the details of the proposed offer/threat usually help determine if there is a case or not.

      Non-Harassment Roles

    As mentioned previously, quid pro quo has had a long history that includes both positive and negative usages. Since the term's origin in the mid-sixteenth century, it has had significant usage in a business and political sense.6 In business, it's typically been used as a part of contract law regarding exchanges of goods and services for payment.7 It's still used in that context today and is viewed as something positive. Any breaches of a quid pro quo business arrangement are considered punishable by law and are the part that is viewed negatively, rather than the agreement itself. This is primarily how the concept is able to exist in the workplace in both negative and positive ways-it's dependent on the context and usage.

    From a political standpoint, quid pro quo can be viewed as both negative and positive. It's a standard way of doing business in modern day politics, as politicians offer to do something for their constituents in exchange for their votes, support, and/or campaign donations. Such promises are, in a sense, a part of their jobs as politicians and are not necessarily a bad thing; breaking or failing to follow through on campaign promises are even viewed more as a disappointment than an outright violation in most cases. Political quid pro quo becomes a negative when things extend beyond that and there are questions of corruption and abuse being raised.8 Things like lobbying and pay-to-play tactics that some of the bigger donors use can act as a means to exert influence in a more abusive format of quid pro quo.9 While the outcome may be favorable to everyone and not reach the point of illegality, there is still some question as to whether it is an acceptable action(s). When looking at it that way, it's a bit easier to see how it can be manipulated into something abusive like harassment.

    Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Preventing Workplace Harassment course?

              What Does It Look Like?

    Due to how it is defined and used, quid pro quo is relatively easy to identify if you are one of the parties in a proposed quid pro quo arrangement. It's a combination of two components: the offer, and the conditions. Neither can be tied to discriminatory elements regarding race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, religion, politics, status (e.g. veterans), or any other similar identifying information about someone.10 If there's a threat tied to the exchange-i.e. "do this or you're fired/demoted/etc."-so long as what you are being told or ordered to do is NOT a part of your job duties and conditions. For example, your boss threatening to fire you if you're late to work doesn't count as quid pro quo harassment, but threatening to fire you if you don't perform oral sex on him is. While that may seem like common sense, it does need to be established as it is possible for someone to interpret a threat of any kind-even one that does not violate any laws or the conditions of their employment-as harassment.

    Quid pro quo harassment isn't always isolated between two people, as the exchange can involve putting someone else at a disadvantage. For example, a manager being told by the business' owner that they will get a promotion if they exclude candidates of a certain demographic during the hiring process. The quid pro quo offer is still there, but there's now an entire group of people being victimized through discrimination instead of just the manager who might be punished (e.g. demoted) rather than not rewarded if they don't follow through.

    It's a little harder to identify quid pro quo harassment if you're not directly involved in some way. Think back to the previous example. Even though they are technically a part of the exchange, the applicants who are discriminated against are unaware of it and are unable to properly identify or confirm that it was a quid pro quo situation. You can speculate all you want, but there's nothing to explicitly suggest that that was the case if you don't know the full circumstances of the situation. Accusing someone of quid pro quo when you are not directly connected to the situation-basically if it's all speculation on your part-can actually backfire and may turn into other forms of harassment. There's a difference between claiming or thinking that Shelly got her promotion because she had sex with her boss and Shelly actually getting her promotion because she had sex with her boss. Unless you witnessed such an exchange-either the sex followed by the promotion itself, or the offer made-you can't say for sure that that is what happened. Rather than acknowledge the possibility that Shelly got the promotion on her own merits, you're only conclusions are that the boss is abusing his power for sexual favors and/or you're slut-shaming Shelly by reducing her to her body and her sex. Making such claims without evidence or witness as a third-party is a quite the gamble and should be done very, very carefully.


    Since quid pro quo harassment is so closely tied to sexual harassment, there isn't enough data available to determine how prevalent it really is. In the context of sexual harassment, quid pro quo is actually a rather common occurrence and is one of the most common forms that situations of sexual harassment take on.11 Outside of that, things are not all that clear. There's agreement that it still happens in the workplace, but there's some discrepancy as to the frequency of instances. Some experts claim that occurrences are decreasing, while others say they're increasing due to subtle and normalized usage.

      Why Does It Happen?

    Most theories surrounding how instances of quid pro quo harassment come to be largely focus on elements of power and authority. By its very nature and definition quid pro quo harassment is an abuse of power involving the exploitation of others, so considering those elements as a cause or motivation does make sense.12 The success of a harassing quid pro quo offer is largely dependent on the harasser's ability to make it so the victim has no other option but to comply. That's not possible if the harasser lacks that authority or the ability to express or exert that authority over the victim.

    So what if the harasser has no real power or authority over the victim-is it just an empty threat? While that may be the case in some instances, it could still work if the victim is either unaware that it is an empty threat or are unaware of the full extent of their rights as an employee. It's still harassment a victim eventually complies with unwelcomed harassment because they feel they have no choice, but were convinced that there was no other option.13

      Is It Preventable?

    As with all forms of harassment, quid pro quo is preventable to a degree. Because it does have a legitimate non-harassment form in business, boundaries as to what is and isn't acceptable in quid pro quo arrangements need to be established. Such information needs to be included in any and all anti-harassment and zero-tolerance policies that the business has, and it should be reviewed for the sake of clarity.14 That information should be shared with all staff members without restriction. Any information pertaining to employee rights should also be made available with ease so there is no confusion or muddling as to what anyone is obligated to do as an employee.

    Those who have power and authority in the business, and are therefore likely to become the harassers in a quid pro quo situation, should consider implementing a checks-and-balance like system to prevent abuse. Even simply asking yourself questions about the requests and demands you make of employees can help. Is this request crossing a line? Am I violating someone's rights? Is this discriminatory in any way? Is this illegal in any way? Would I follow this request if it was asked of me? Evaluate your actions before you make them to ensure that you are not doing something you shouldn't. Apply the same logic if you witness a peer or other authority figure in the business doing anything in line with quid pro quo harassment. Do whatever you can to make it so that everyone in the business knows that quid pro quo harassment is not acceptable behavior and will not be tolerated.