Quid Pro Quo Harassment—When Barter Becomes Abuse

Imagine a woman showing up at a job interview with high hopes. She did her best to prepare, researched the company, and made mental notes for expected interview questions. Her attire is professional from head to toe, and she is ready to leave the best impression on her potential employer. She needs this job more than anyone knows. The interview starts, and after some standard questions, a male interviewer starts asking more personal things—about her relationship status, her preferences for partners, or other inappropriate topics. The woman gets more and more uncomfortable until the interviewer’s intentions get apparent. If she wants to get this job, she needs to go out with him (or worse). 

The woman from this little scene has just experienced firsthand what it means to be involved in sexual harassment as barter or, in legal terms, quid pro quo harassment. 

What Is Quid Pro Quo Harassment?

The phrase “quid pro quo” translates to “something for something” or “this for that.” In an ordinary sense, it refers to barter—you give someone something they need, and they provide you with something that you need. 

This scenario sounds great until it isn’t. When power comes into play, the barter of this sort can become problematic and lead to harassment. That is why quid pro quo harassment is one of the most common forms of sexual harassment at the workplace, besides hostile work environment harassment. The gender identities from the scenario that opens this article are arbitrary since it can happen to anyone. It is a fact though that women experience sexual harassment more often than men. 

According to a report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), between 25% and 85% of women had to deal with some kind of sexual harassment in the workplace. Compared to that, in 2017, only 16.5% of all sexual harassment charges received by the EEOC came from men. The numbers for women might seem obscure because of the lack of reports due to the pervasive victim-shaming culture, but even in the best-case scenario, this means that one in every four women had to learn what harassment is

Quid Pro Quo or Hostile Environment Harassment?

Since these two types of sexual harassment are the most prevailing, it would be good to specify the difference between them. Though quid pro quo harassment and hostile environment harassment can overlap at times, there is one significant difference between them, and that is the presence or the lack of power. 

Quid pro quo sexual harassment typically involves a proposed exchange of actions. In our initial scenario, a woman will get the job if she accepts to go on a date with the employer. In that example, there is one crucial part—the employer is in a position of power and authority compared to the victim. In case the victim doesn’t accept the indecent proposal, there may be retaliation — she won’t get the job. In other circumstances, she might lose her job, she won’t get a promotion or a good grade on the exam, and the list goes on. 

Sexual harassment can come from a peer as well, and then, it is usually called hostile environment harassment. For example, a co-worker can make crude comments or use sexual innuendos and gestures so much that it creates an abusive environment where the victim doesn’t feel safe or comfortable. This feeling of insecurity can come out of a single instance of harassment if it’s traumatic enough, for example, from inappropriate touching or other physical advances. It could be argued that in the male-female dynamics, there is always room for talking about positions of power and privilege. Still, hostile environment harassment doesn’t imply that the victim is a subordinate to the harasser. The harassment occurs on the same authority level for both roles. 

Quid Pro Quo Harassment Examples

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when you experience unwelcome verbal or physical sexual attention from a supervisor as a requirement for something that the victim wants or needs, so it happens most often in the workplace. It can happen right from the beginning, at the job interview, or it can start later, for regular employees. Sometimes the harassment is explicit and direct; at times, it is a little bit more veiled. Here are some common workplace examples of quid pro quo harassment for both sexes:

Category

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment Example

Male-to-female

Mary’s manager, Tod, asks her to come over to his place for dinner. She refuses because she considers it inappropriate and doesn’t want to have any other kind of relationship with Tod besides the professional one. He invites her again, implying there will be talking about a new position for her. Mary doesn’t know what to do because she doesn’t want to go, but also wants to get a promotion and fears possible retaliation for declining. 

Male-to-male

Richard has been working long hours for a while now and feels like he needs some time off. His direct supervisor, John, has been making a lot of sexually charged comments regarding Richard from the day he started. Recently John’s comments turned more aggressive, stating that Richard won’t have a day off unless he accepts John’s advances. 

Female-to-male

Lisa, the head of Marketing at the New York office, finds Brad, the new team member, attractive. She finds any excuse to touch him and flirts with him all the time, even though this is visibly uncomfortable for Brad. One day, Lisa calls him to her office, saying that he needs to be transferred to San Francisco or laid off because they’re downsizing. She mentions that she might find another place for him in the department if he spends a night with her. Brad feels terrible because he doesn’t want to move across the country, yet he had been looking for a job for a long time and can’t afford to lose this one. 

Female-to-female

Nina Feinstein, a prominent casting director, takes notice of young Nicole Johnson at an audition for a supporting role in an upcoming blockbuster. Nicole has been trying to break into acting, and she couldn’t believe it when she finally got a call for this audition. This movie might be her big break. After the screen test, Nina talks to Nicole and makes lewd comments about her appearance. It’s clear she finds her attractive. Nina offers Nicole a more prominent role in the movie if she joins Nina in her hotel room, and Nicole feels torn between being victimized like this or turning down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment Outside the Workplace

While workplace quid pro quo harassment is most prevalent, companies are not the only environment where this type of sexual harassment exists. Some other typical settings where you can be harassed in this manner are:

    • Schools—The dynamic between teachers and students can be paralleled to the supervisor-employer relationship in terms of power and the potential for quid pro quo harassment. The most common example would be asking for sexual favors from students in exchange for a better grade, like in the case of this Reddit user.
    • Rented apartments—A landlord is someone who holds power over tenants, and can be a frequent perpetrator of quid pro quo harassment. The most common example is if a landlord offers an extension when the rent is due if the tenant accepts their sexual advances, like in this story found on Reddit. Quid pro quo harassment, in this case, often goes along with other types of landlord harassment.
    • Police—A police officer, as a representative of authority and power, could be guilty of quid pro quo type of sexual harassment. In this situation, quid pro quo harassment overlaps with police misconduct. A typical example might be if a police officer stops a civilian in a car because of speeding and then offers to make the ticket disappear if the driver “returns the favor” sexually, like in this story from The Free Thought Project.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment Goes Online

One instance of quid pro quo harassment is enough to traumatize the victim, whether they accept the offer or not, but sometimes the onslaughts are relentless. In this age, when people spend the most substantial part of their day online on their phones, workplace harassment can continue outside of the office, and supervisors can turn into proper stalkers.

Harassing phone calls from the boss, electronic harassment over email and chat—even cyberstalking in the form of liking and commenting on all of your pictures on social media—the possibilities are endless. Quid pro quo harassment often doesn’t stop when you clock out. The same indecent proposal can wait for you every time you turn your phone on unless you learn how to stop a stalker or, in the worst case, get a restraining order

What Is Not Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment?

This type of harassment is common, but not every rude or awkward situation, even if it is illegal, can be considered quid pro quo harassment, especially in the workplace. Due to the intricacies of workplace relationships and human relationships in general, it is better if you can learn what doesn’t count as quid pro quo harassment:

  1. An intimate relationship between a supervisor and an employee which is consensual and doesn’t influence the workplace flow
  2. A consensual relationship between employees who don’t have any influence on employment decisions that can affect either of the partners
  3. A barter-type exchange which doesn’t include sexual favors and which can be illegal or inappropriate on some other grounds, for example, bribing the boss to get a promotion 
  4. A case of sexual harassment that doesn’t include a “this for that” exchange but still falls under harassment 

When experiencing situations that seem to include elements of quid pro quo harassment, it is best to consider information about different types of harassment so you can know what the best course of action is.

Effects of Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment of any sort is a terrible thing, yet most quid pro quo sexual harassment cases go unreported. According to a study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, about 5 million employees experience sexual harassment in the workplace across the United States, and 99.8% never report it formally.  Such events leave consequences. Here’s how sexual harassment, including quid pro quo harassment, can affect the victim:

Emotional EffectsMental Health Effects

Physical Effects

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Betrayal
  • Powerlessness
  • Humiliation
  • Shame
  • Loss of motivation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • Substance abuse
  • Panic attacks 
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Eating disorders
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Higher stress levels

What Can DoNotPay Do for You About Quid Pro Quo Harassment?

DoNotPay’s goal is to provide help with different administrative and legal issues, including various types of harassment. Victims of quid pro quo sexual harassment are usually confused; they fear retaliation as their jobs are on the line, and they don’t have a clear idea of what they can and should do. While your company might have a system for reporting harassment, in some cases, that might not be enough, especially if the harassment continues after work, via your phone or social media. For that reason, DoNotPay created a new feature meant to provide effortless legal assistance. Here’s how it works:

  1. Open DoNotPay in your web browser or get the iOS app and log in
  2. Choose Relationship Protection
  3. When prompted by the chatbot, choose Safety and Stalking
  4. Answer the chatbot’s questions
  5. Feel free to add any detail you find essential for your case

Depending on the case and the options you chose during the chat, DoNotPay will pick the most appropriate actions to proceed—from writing a cease and desist letter that you can send to the perpetrator to reporting and blocking the harasser on social media.

What Other Means Do You Have to Fight Quid Pro Quo Harassment?

Since quid pro quo harassment is most common in the workplace, you should know what other legal and administrative means you have to protect yourself in your company. The first thing to remember is that sexual harassment of any sort is illegal on a federal level, according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In case you report harassment, your employer cannot ignore you, and it is illegal for them to retaliate against you. Besides this, make sure to check any applicable state laws for the place where you live for additional protection. 

DoNotPay can help you deal with quid pro quo harassment perpetrators, but you can take these additional steps:

  1. Ask the harasser to stop—if you’re comfortable enough to face the person harassing you, ask them to stop doing whatever it is that is making you feel uneasy. You can do this in person (it is advised to take a witness with you) or in writing (you can use DoNotPay’s cease and desist letter for that purpose). 
  2. Research your company’s policies and the process for filing harassment claims—businesses today are sensitive to the subject of sexual harassment, and your company probably has a guide on how to report such incidents. If you haven’t received it or you cannot find it, contact HR so they can provide you with more information.
  3. Report the harassment to HR or your boss—while you might not feel comfortable doing this, as quid pro quo harassment comes from the supervisors, it is still recommended to do so. If the harasser is your direct supervisor or belongs to middle management, try to report the case to HR or an authority figure above the harasser.
  4. File a complaint with a government agency—if you communicate the incident internally and nothing comes out of it, or you experience retaliation, you can reach to federal agencies like the EEOC, which has offices nationwide, or to your state’s anti-discrimination or civil rights agency. Pay attention to the deadlines since you can file a sexual harassment complaint with EEOC within 180 or 300 days from the last occurrence of harassment, depending on the state where you work.
  5. Take legal action—if everything else fails, talk to your lawyer. If you can’t afford their legal fees, there are other channels you can turn to, such as Equal Rights Advocates or our very own DoNotPay app, both of which provide free legal help. Before suing, it is advised to file a complaint with a federal or state agency and get a right-to-sue letter from them. 

What Else Can DoNotPay Do for You?

Have you ever received an annoying robocall or waited forever on the phone to reach customer support? If the answer is yes, you should check out how to quickly fix those problems with DoNotPay. Our app is meant to provide help with numerous administrative and legal issues that take too much time and energy and stress you out on a daily level. 

You don’t need to do much—create your profile via your web browser or on your iPhone. Once you log in, you can explore all the solutions DoNotPay has prepared for various annoying problems you might encounter routinely: