What’s the Difference Between a Hostile Work Environment and Quid Pro Quo?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new. It is a transgression that has been around for decades, and sadly, it is not something that we can respect. Anyone can be a victim of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment in the workplace is as common as going from Monday to Tuesday. Too many times, sexual harassment goes on unchallenged.  Let’s dig a little deeper into sexual harassment.

Defining sexual harassment

When an employee says they were sexually harassed, what do they mean? Sexual harassment is:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances of a sexual nature, which can be either verbal, physical, senior abuse directed at the subordinate or indecent gestures and actions
  • Influencing
  • Offering to influence
  • Threatening the career, pay, or job of a man or woman in exchange for sexual favors
  • Repeated or deliberate comments that are offensive; gestures, physical contact of a sexual nature in the workplace or environment-related to work

When a person touches you inappropriately, or a colleague says:  “Hey hottie, you look good today. Can I give you a peck?” Such conduct or utterances is sexual harassment. This kind of behavior is inappropriate, offensive, and unlawful.

Sexual harassment includes:

  • Unwelcome personal attention
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Unwelcome sexual statements

It is vital to understand workplace sexual harassment. The two most common types are Hostile Work Environment and Quid Pro Quo. Let’s delve deeper.

What constitutes a hostile work environment?

Imagine working in a place that gives you a headache, a place you don’t feel respected, appreciated, and demeaned continuously. A hostile work environment is created when an employer, supervisor, manager, or a colleague’s actions or behaviors are offensive, demeaning, and intimidating. Such acts ultimately make the workplace unbearable.  Another example would be to imagine a colleague that always shouts negative things about you or your gender. Or a supervisor who shares nude images on work platforms and sends memes of a sexual nature. These people would be guilty of sexual harassment and would be contributing to a hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo definition

Quid pro quo is a form of harassment where a supervisor/manager abuses their authority by making unwelcome sexual advances. Quid pro quo is a Latin word that means something for something. “You want a promotion; you have to sleep with me.” Or a boss that says, “Hey, I am willing to give you that off day if you agree to have dinner with me. This behavior is unlawful.

Difference between quid pro quo and hostile work environment

What separates the two is that with quid pro quo, the advances come from a person of influence such as an employer, supervisor, or manager using their authority to gain sexual favors. In a hostile work environment, the offender can be a co-worker or a person in management.

Another glaring difference is that a hostile environment does not necessarily include an exchange of anything; you don’t need to give to get. It’s the conduct, the actions of the person that are offensive.

Additionally, hostile work environment acts may affect more than the intended person. In other words, those acts might create a hostile environment for other employees. It is possible in an open plan office structure where all employees can see an offender’s actions or hear his/her utterances. Again, with quid pro quo, a supervisor or manager often wants sexual favors from a subordinate.

Sexual harassment training

Sexual harassment training is one of the tools that can help remedy these issues. Sexual harassment training is vital and needed in today’s workplace. Such activity will help employers, managers, and supervisors combat the quid pro quo problems and a hostile work environment. Ultimately, employers, managers, and supervisors are responsible for ensuring that the workplace is free of any issue that is detrimental to a safe, harmonious workplace.

Here are two situations:

Situation #1: Hostile working environment:

Mary Sinbad has been happy with her position as a senior programmer for the Long Beach town cooperate office, which employs 100 people.

There are five other senior programmers in the department where Mary works.  Over the last few months, Mary has been experiencing negative comments about her work product from one of the programmers.  Mary told her supervisor that senior programmer Jimmy White sabotaged part of her input.

Mary told her supervisor that it is getting harder and harder to work in the department because the constant negative comments from Jimmy about her are causing her to feel that the work environment is not conducive for her or the department to accomplish its task.

Mary went on to tell her supervisor that the work environment is hostile to her, and it is taking an emotional toll on her.

Mary’s supervisor told Mary that he was going to have a group meeting with all members of the programming department the following morning.

On the following morning, the supervisor did meet with the programming department.  He made it clear that any employee found to be contributing to a hostile work environment would be fired immediately.

Jimmy White sabotaging Mary Sinbad’s work and making negative comments about her created a hostile working environment, which is illegal and is also a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VII.

Situation #2: Quid pro quo:

Susan Baker is a late-night manager at a local May’s Fast Food restaurant that serves the best pancakes, sausage, eggs, and bacon this side of the Mississippi River.  May’s has 15 full-time employees.

Susan is fascinated with the 25-year-old bodybuilder named Roger Cummings with the dimple in the middle of his chin.

Susan told Roger that the company will soon be looking for another night shift manager with a pay increase of $10,000 per year and that she would talk to him more about the position tomorrow.

The next day Susan stopped Roger at the water cooler and told him more about the night manager’s position and more about the annual pay increase.  Roger was excited about possibly getting that position because he has student debt that the additional money would help him pay off.

On the following afternoon, Susan went to the back of the store where Roger was stocking recently arrived supplies.  She brushed up against Roger and told him that she plans to recommend him for that night manager position, but to make that happen, Roger would have come to her house and give her a sexy massage.

Roger asked Susan if I don’t come to your house, I’m not going to get the manager position, is, that right?  Susan responded that is right!

Asking Roger to come to her house to give her a sexy massage in exchange for the night manager position with the annual $10,000 pay increase is a clear case of quid pro quo and is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Select the best answer.

The two most common forms of workplace sexual harassment covered in this article are:

  1. Unwelcome personal attention and a hostile work environment
  2. Unwelcome sexual advances and a hostile work environment
  3. Unwelcome sexual statements and quid pro quo
  4. Hostile work environment and quid pro quo.

Answer Key: See: Defining sexual harassment

We would like to hear from you. Leave your comments below.

Have you worked in a hostile work environment? Have you ever been in a situation of quid pro quo? Were you or someone you knew a victim of a hostile work environment?

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