Quid Pro Quo Harassment: What It Is and How To Address & Prevent It

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Quid Pro Quo Harassment: What It Is and How To Address & Prevent It

Quid pro quo harassment is a form of workplace sexual harassment that employers cannot turn a blind eye to. HR must work to prevent it and be prepared to take immediate steps if it does occur.

This article covers what quid pro quo harassment is and what HR can do about it.

What is quid pro quo harassment?
Examples of quid pro quo harassment in the workplace
What is not considered quid pro quo harassment
The impact of unaddressed quid pro quo harassment
How to address quid pro quo harassment
How HR can prevent quid pro quo harassment

What is quid pro quo harassment?

“Quid pro quo” is Latin for “something given or received for something else” and can refer to many different reciprocal circumstances. However, in the workplace context, quid pro quo designates sexual harassment.

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when an authority figure uses their position of power to pursue sexual contact with an employee by offering them an employment advantage, job stability, or a pardon from consequences in return. It can also describe instances of retaliation where an employee loses out on employment opportunities or suffers consequences for rejecting sexual advances from an authority figure.

Quid pro quo harassment is not uncommon in the workplace. Social scientist Dacher Keltner explained that powerful people could sometimes develop an empathy deficit. In these cases, a person doesn’t read others’ emotions or consider their perspectives, which can lead to impulsive, inappropriate behavior.

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The responsibility for dealing with quid pro quo harassment falls on HR. HR must be prepared with a system of policies and procedures to prevent and address it if it does occur. HR should also take a central role in creating a safe work environment and promoting a company culture that doesn’t tolerate abusive behavior.

Examples of quid pro quo harassment in the workplace

Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs in the workplace in various forms. Here are some examples of what it may look like:

  • A supervisor asks an employee out to dinner and mentions a potential promotion or pay raise discussion.
  • A supervisor tells an employee they should dress provocatively or be “sexier” if they want to keep their job.
  • A supervisor grants an employee’s request for time off by implying that they must “earn it” inappropriately.
  • A supervisor denies an employee a promotion for rejecting their sexual advances.
  • A hiring manager flirts with a job candidate and suggests that the advances must be accepted to gain employment.
  • A supervisor threatens to reduce an employee’s hours or give them undesirable work if they don’t participate in a sexual relationship.
  • A supervisor asks an employee for a back rub and proposes a more desirable work schedule for them.

Quid pro quo harassment can happen in both straightforward and subtle ways. Some dialogue and conduct are outright harassment, while other situations are generated from sexual innuendo. Savvy harassers know that if they merely hint at their intentions, they can claim that their words or actions were misinterpreted.

Behavior warning signs

HR needs to recognize quid pro quo harassment conduct, even when it’s not being reported. Although they aren’t necessarily proof of wrongdoing, certain behaviors can be warning signs.

Keep an eye out for certain scenarios, such as:

  • A display of unwanted physical contact.
  • A sudden and unwarranted retaliatory action against an employee.
  • A promotion is granted without merit.
  • A low-performing employee survives a layoff.
  • A close relationship between a supervisor and subordinate is sparking rumors.
  • A supervisor is excessively protective of one employee.
  • A performance evaluation or pay raise that doesn’t correlate with an employee’s output.

What is not considered quid pro quo harassment

Quid pro quo is not a blanket term for all harassment or workplace sexual relationships. Although other incidents may still be unethical or illegal, it’s important to distinguish what shouldn’t be classified as quid pro quo sexual harassment.

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These circumstances would not be labeled as quid pro quo sexual harassment:

  • Sexual harassment that does not involve a “this for that” element. (Other types of sexual harassment are likely to fall under the “hostile work environment” umbrella.)
  • A consensual romantic relationship between colleagues who are not in a supervisor-subordinate association.
  • A consensual romantic relationship between superior and subordinate that doesn’t impact the employment relationship.
  • A non-sexual quid pro quo transaction. For example, exchanging money for an employment benefit or to avoid consequences.

The impact of unaddressed quid pro quo harassment

Quid pro quo harassment cannot be taken lightly because it harms both the employee and the organization. It can escalate and lead to other problems if allowed to go on.

The person who is the target of harassment suffers the psychological impact of feeling powerless and unsafe at work. This emotional distress can affect their job performance, cause them to miss work, or even resign.

Employees who experience quid pro quo harassment can also take legal action against an employer that tolerates the behavior. This leaves the organization facing a costly legal battle and potential reputation damage.

When an organization does not address misconduct, it sets the tone for a culture where inappropriate behavior is acceptable. This can prompt other harassment attempts, even happening openly, with no fear of admonishment. Witnesses to the conduct will believe that reporting it won’t make a difference. This creates a negative, unsafe work environment where employees think they have no voice.

How to address quid pro quo harassment

All accusations of quid pro quo harassment must be taken very seriously. These situations are complex, especially if the accused is a high-ranking or well-respected leader. Therefore, they must be treated carefully and methodically.

Outlined below are important factors about handling quid pro quo harassment allegations in the workplace:

Investigating all reports of harassment in a timely and thorough manner

These situations must be made a top priority as soon as they are discovered. Conduct a full HR investigation to draw a reasonable conclusion about what happened by evaluating all the evidence.

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It’s important to remain objective about both parties. Don’t judge either’s credibility based on their reputation. This may require bringing in a neutral third party to conduct or assist with the investigation.

Providing support and resources to the victim(s) of harassment

Treat the victim with the utmost respect. Help them feel safe sharing their experience by listening intently and assuring confidentiality.

Do what it takes to protect the employee from further harassment. However, don’t do anything that makes the employee uncomfortable or calls attention to them. For instance, transferring them to another department against their wishes to separate them from the offender.

Make mental health support options available and offer to accommodate other needs they may have, such as paid time off. Be sure to take the necessary steps to remedy any consequences the employee suffered in the context of the harassment.  

Disciplining the harasser(s) appropriately and consistently

In accordance with company policy and applicable laws, hold the offending employee accountable. Corrective action could mean a warning, suspension, or termination, depending on the severity of the behavior. It could also involve training and mentoring sessions to ensure the harassing behavior won’t be repeated.

No matter where the person ranks in the organization, discipline must be thoroughly documented and consistently applied in every situation.

Monitoring for retaliation

Follow up on the investigation to ensure the situation has been fully resolved. Check in with the claiming employee to see how they are doing, if they feel settled back into their job, and if they need further support. Be alert for any indications that the accuser has been retaliated against, even if they haven’t reported it.

How To Prevent Quid Pro Quo Harassment-social

How HR can prevent quid pro quo harassment

In addition to handling quid pro quo harassment allegations, HR should also take a proactive role in preventing it from happening. This can be accomplished with the following actions:

1. Create an anti-harassment policy

A comprehensive anti-harassment policy provides the structure for confronting unacceptable behavior and indicates that the organization strives to support employees with a safe and respectful work environment.

To ensure that all employees thoroughly understand the policy, it should be written in simple, direct language. Some of the essential elements of putting the policy in place include:

  • Providing a thorough definition of harassment, including quid pro quo, and explain what conduct is prohibited.
  • Outlining the consequences sanctioned for harassment.
  • Declaring that swift and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken against harassment.
  • Establishing which behaviors can lead to harassment and will not be tolerated.
  • Explaining the rights and responsibilities employees have in reporting harassment, including protection from retaliation.
  • Ensuring wide circulation and clear communication of the policy.

2. Conduct training with employees and managers 

Educating all staff on quid pro quo and other types of harassment is a crucial component of preventing it. The goal is to communicate what harassment is and how the organization addresses it, as well as discourage it from happening.

Anti-harassment training elements to consider include:

  • The importance of a safe workplace and the organization’s commitment to it.
  • Stating what the anti-harassment policy says.
  • Defining what harassment is and examples of how it may happen in the workplace.
  • The ramifications for harassing others.
  • Behaviors that can be interpreted as threatening.
  • The protections offered to harassment victims.
  • How to respond to harassment and the process for reporting it.

Training helps employees absorb and retain the information better than just reading a policy. It is especially effective when it’s interactive. Videos and case examples can make the situations come alive and will be more influential than written content.

Separate training for supervisors can cover additional material. For example, the dynamics of how power and authority can turn into abuse or ways to confront undesirable behavior before it escalates.

3. Enabling reporting of quid pro quo harassment

Without a clear and accessible process for reporting quid pro quo harassment, it will likely happen and continue.

Many people are apprehensive about disclosing harassment because they fear they won’t be believed or the accused will be protected. Those who experience harassment need to know that HR has prepared for this situation and has procedures in place to guide them through it.

A quid pro quo harassment reporting process should include:

  • A statement that reporting inappropriate behavior is encouraged and comes with support.
  • An explanation of the employees’ rights and protections.
  • Assurance that confidentiality will be maintained to every extent possible.
  • Investigations will be prompt, thorough, and impartial.
  • All the avenues for initiating a complaint. (Consider whether an anonymous method is possible.) 
  • A complete description of all the steps of the process.
  • Assurance that there will be no retaliation or consequences for making a complaint.

The reporting process is inadequate unless employees are fully aware of it. Be sure it’s widely communicated in your anti-harassment policy and training, is included in the employee handbook, and made available with the other employment rights postings and resources. 

4. Creating a positive, supportive company culture

Ideally, every workplace would be free of quid pro quo behavior because no one would choose to engage in it. In reality, however, employers have to work at creating the kind of culture that doesn’t tolerate the abuse of authority.

HR can help promote a positive, supportive company culture that discourages harassment and where safety and well-being are openly discussed and reinforced. Ways to do this include:

  • Establishing high expectations for attitudes and how people treat each other to promote positive behaviors. Challenge top leadership to model it.
  • Clearly defining unacceptable conduct by specifically naming the provocative behavior that is not welcome in the company culture. For example, jokes and physical gestures of a sexual nature or the distribution or display of sexually suggestive materials.
  • Maintaining a consistent reporting and investigation process that employees trust and see as effective.
  • Communicating the consequences for unacceptable behavior and holding everyone, including management, accountable for their actions.
  • Encouraging open communication and providing ongoing training on discrimination and harassment issues.
  • Routinely reviewing and updating anti-harassment policies and reporting procedures for relevancy.

Key takeaways

  • Quid pro quo harassment takes place when a person tries to engage in sexual contact with an employee under their authority by offering something in return.
  • HR must address quid pro quo harassment: All allegations must be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. Those bringing the allegations must be supported and protected from retaliation. There must be discipline for harassing behavior, and it must be applied consistently.
  • HR must work to prevent quid pro quo harassment: Anti-harassment policies and procedures must be formulated, communicated, and followed to put a reporting process in place and create a safe and supportive work culture.
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