Quid pro quo literally translates from Latin as “something for something,” and has a long history both in legal and various other fields. In modern terms, it refers to giving one valuable thing for another, and the implications of the phrase vary depending on the legal situation it is being used for. In contract law, for example, the phrase refers to the exchange of mutual consideration between parties. 

Quid pro quo is also used in employment law to refer to unlawful sexual harassment in the workplace. If someone suffers this type of harassment on the job, they have the right to pursue legal action against their employer.

What is Sexual Harassment?

The government agency that governs workplace harassment on a federal level is known as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, often shortened to EEOC. The agency’s main roles are to enforce the many federal workplace anti-discriminatory laws and provide a safe place for employees to report illegal harassment. The EEOC divides sexual harassment into two main categories: hostile work environment harassment, and quid pro quo harassment. 

Hostile work environment harassment occurs when an employee makes unwanted sexual advances or behaviors towards a coworker, and their actions create an offensive and uncomfortable atmosphere. There does not need to be a discrepancy in power, such as a manager/supervisor and employee dynamic for this type of harassment to occur. 

The second type of sexual harassment is quid pro quo. Unlike hostile work environment harassment, quid pro quo refers to a difference in position between the harasser and the victim, such as a manager or supervisor. 

It occurs when the manager/supervisor promises an employment benefit in exchange for a sexual favor, or a promise to refrain from a negative action in exchange for the favor. If a supervisor/manager threatens to withhold a job benefit and/or threatens adverse reprisal if the sexual favor is not performed, they have committed quid pro quo sexual harassment. 

What are the Requirements for a Quid Pro Quo Harassment Claim?

Like many other legal claims, a potential plaintiff must satisfy an elements test to pursue a quid pro quo sexual harassment suit. They are:

  1. Employment by the defendant;
  2. A supervisor or manager makes unwanted sexual advances towards the employee plaintiff or engages in other unwanted sexual conduct towards the employee;
  3. Job benefits become contingent on performing sexual favors for the supervisor, or supervisor threatens to take negative employment actions if the employee refuses to perform such favors; and
  4. The employee is harmed as a result.

To qualify as actionable sexual harassment, the employment benefit or injury must be significant, or in the term that federal law uses, material. Minor inconveniences like small changes in job tasks don’t count, for example. 

Issues like pay cuts, benefit denials, false and intentional bad statements against the employee’s reputation, major changes in job tasks and work loads, and firings are a few common examples of adverse material actions. 

On the other end, promising bonuses, raises, and other preferential treatment contingent on sexual favors also counts as quid pro quo harassment.

What are the Reporting Procedures for Quid Pro Quo?

The large majority of employers have an independent reporting system to flag, prevent, and punish sexual harassment in their companies. If someone is harassed, their first step is to follow the company’s reporting policy, which is usually handled by HR. The company will then usually perform an internal investigation into the matter and act appropriately should they find the claim credible.

If the company refuses to act, the victim’s next option is to file a complaint with the EEOC.  The employee has 180 days from the date of harassment to file a claim, which can be extended to 300 days if the employee’s state of residence has quid pro laws as well. Every state has their own laws regarding workplace protections and employee reporting, so check if those laws might apply your situation. 

Should the EEOC investigation find that discrimination did take place, they may file a lawsuit on the plaintiff’s behalf. If the result of the investigation decides that no harassment took place, the person may still file a lawsuit without the help of the EEOC behind their claim.  

What Damages Can a Quid Pro Quo Plaintiff Seek?

If a plaintiff’s claim of sexual harassment is successful, they are entitled to seek monetary damages from their employer. They may receive compensatory damages that include medical bills, lost wage and job search expenses, and attorney’s fees. 

A court may also award damages for mental and physical suffering caused by the harassment, and any back pay or denied benefits. If the plaintiff is filing a state claim, these categories might be slightly different or have a cap on certain types of damages, so consult an attorney first. 

It is important to note that it is illegal for an employer to fire or seek other retribution against an employee for filing a sexual harassment complaint. This can lead to even more damages awarded to the plaintiff.

Do I Need an Attorney for a Sexual Harassment Claim?

While there are laws designed to protect workers from harassment, it can sometimes seem like an unwinnable battle. One person fighting a company with vast resources can feel lonely and overwhelmed. 

That is why it is so important to seek the help of an employment law attorney in your jurisdiction to help you sort through the laws, file the right claim, and support you during the legal process.