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Quid Pro Quo Harassment: Power Play at Work

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The #MeToo movement has inspired many people to come forward with their stories in the pursuit of beating sexual harassment. Unfortunately, harassment is still a very real problem everywhere, especially in workplaces.

There are two types of sexual harassment in the workplace: quid pro quo and hostile environment sexual harassment. Between the two, quid pro quo harassment is more difficult to prove since it is the most hidden form of harassment.

What is quid pro quo harassment?

Perpetrators of quid pro quo sexual harassment try to gain or maintain power over their victims by using their higher position over the victim.

If you or a loved one is a victim of quid pro quo harassment, the situation is challenging and traumatizing. But now is the time to stay silent. It’s important to empower yourself with the right knowledge and help from the right people.

What Does Quid Pro Quo Harassment Mean?

In literal translation, the word ‘quid pro quo’ translates to “something for something” in Latin. Think of it as a “give and take” situation or meaning.

In essence, quid pro quo harassment is a form of sexual blackmail. This occurs when an employee’s manager, supervisor or other authoritative figure offers employment or job advancement opportunities in exchange for sexual favors. Victims of quid pro quo harassment in the workplace often feel as if they have no choice but to comply; otherwise, they will lose their job or be retaliated against.

In general, quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when:

  • Employee benefits are contingent upon the submission to unwelcome sexual advances
  • Rejection of the request for sexual favors or of a sexual advance leads to an adverse employment action

Perpetrators of this form of harassment demand sex in exchange for:

  • Pay or salary increases
  • Higher employment statuses
  • Training opportunities
  • Job advancement opportunities
  • Fewer or easier job assignments
  • Favorable work shifts
  • Job acceptance
  • Prevention of job loss

Quid pro quo harassment is different from a hostile work environment sexual harassment. The latter is any form of repetitive behavior that creates a hostile work environment (hence, its name) for the victim. It encompasses any situation that can cause an employee to feel emotionally distressed at work — whether it’s verbal harassment or sexual assault.

As mentioned above, quid pro quo harassment can be more difficult to detect since it usually occurs behind closed doors.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment: An Unfortunate Tale of Power Play

A sexual harassment case is tagged as quid pro quo if the person demanding the sexual favors is in a position of power. They can influence the firing, hiring and promoting process. They have the authority to make significant employment decisions.

On the other hand, the person being demanded to satisfy these favors is in a less powerful position.

If the employee refuses the sexual advances of their employer and faces negative consequences because of it, this is a classic case of quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Quid pro quo harassment doesn’t occur between co-workers of equal statuses or non-decision-making supervisors. The harasser must have higher authority over the employee. Power discrepancy is the defining line. This discrepancy results in the subordinate complying with the sexual favors to avoid consequences that will impact their job.

Examples of Quid Pro Quo Harassment

If you’re unsure whether you are or have been a victim of quid pro quo sexual harassment, here are some examples:

Example 1

John gets interviewed for a job when his interviewer starts asking him personal questions that make him feel uncomfortable (since these questions are not related to the job). The interviewer then comes out from behind their desk and sits on the edge of John’s chair, putting their hand on his shoulder and says, “I’ll give you this job if we can spend after-hours time together” in a suggestive manner.

Example 2

Sarah’s manager makes his interest in her very clear, but Sarah always says no to his advances. However, he offers to promote her if she’ll agree to go on a date with him because he believes they’ll hit it off.

Example 3

Two people — an employee and their supervisor — are in a consensual sexual relationship. However, the supervisor feels the employee is losing interest in their relationship, so they threaten their subordinate to fire them if they end the relationship.

 Example 4

Michael’s boss buys him tickets to the company’s yearly vacation trips and suggests he can pay them back later by offering sex.

Some cases of harassment don’t fall under the quid pro quo sexual harassment category. It can be difficult to determine whether you were a victim of one. In such cases, your best option is to get in touch with an attorney, tell your story and let them determine your situation.

Keep in mind that even if you are in a consensual relationship with the defendant, your case would still qualify for quid pro quo harassment claims.

A case is not considered a quid pro quo harassment case if:

  • If the employee and the authoritative figure’s consensual relationship cannot influence their employment status.
  • Sexual harassment doesn’t include a “this for that” favor.
  • The “this for that” exchange is not sexual in nature.

How Do You Prove Quid Pro Quo?

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If you seek justice for your case, you must file a complaint with a federal and/or state labor protection agency first (you have 180 days to file with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). At the same time, work with a lawyer immediately.

Once you file a sexual harassment claim, you are protected by the law. If your employer or other members of the top management retaliate, they will be held strictly liable since they are responsible for keeping the workplace safe. An employer can also be held liable even if they didn’t deny any employment opportunity yet. The plaintiff’s attorney need not prove negligence or prove direct wrongdoing.

What Elements Characterize Quid Pro Quo Harassment?

To win in a quid pro quo harassment case, the plaintiff must prove different elements. These elements include the following:

  • Unwanted sexual harassment. The victim was harmed by the alleged conduct.
  • The victim’s employment at the offending company. They must be an employee of or applied for a job with, the defendant’s company.
  • Conditional job opportunities are based on the sexual favors of the alleged harasser. In this case, certain job benefits were given on the condition that the victim will agree to the harasser’s favors. This also includes the employment decisions affecting the plaintiff that were made based on the harassment.
  • The harasser’s position over the victim. At the time of the alleged sexual harassment, the defendant should be a supervisor or an authoritative figure for the company.

From a practical standpoint, the judge will look for evidence proving that the alleged harassment resulted in significant consequences, such as the plaintiff being passed over a promotion or being fired.

In general, winning a sexual harassment case is not always an easy one. The best thing you can do is to document EVERYTHING. Help the investigation process by gathering extensive records. Keep all memos, emails and offensive materials. If people witnessed the harassment, they can also support your case and help with the documentation.

Legal Remedies for Quid Pro Quo Harassment

If you win the case, you can recover damage for lost benefits, lost wages or even lost employment opportunities. In some cases, the victims can claim damage for emotional distress and get their jobs back (if these were lost due to the harassment).

You may also be awarded punitive damages, especially for egregious violations to discourage the defendant from engaging in sexual harassment in the future. However, these aren’t often awarded.

If you have been sexually harassed by an executive, supervisor or another authoritative figure, do not stay silent. You don’t have to submit to their demands. You need not worry about your job. Instead of living in fear, get in touch with an attorney today and fight for your case.

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