Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment: What You Need to Know

Your Complete Guide to Eliminating Manipulation and Exploitation in the Workplace

Quid pro quo sexual harassment can look a bit like bribery, but it’s often much subtler. And because of that, it can slip under the radar more easily than other types of workplace harassment.

But quid pro quo harassment can be just as detrimental to a company’s culture and bottom line as other forms, damaging employees and leaving the company exposed to lawsuits and reputation damage.

A single incidence of quid pro quo sexual harassment is enough to trigger a lawsuit, so it’s critical that anyone in a position of power in the workplace has the tools to prevent it.

(P.S. here are some tools you might need: Sexual Harassment Policy Template and a dedicated Sexual Harassment Complaint Form).

And without even being aware of the incident, an employer can be liable for the quid pro quo harassment perpetrated by a supervisor because supervisors are deemed to be acting on behalf of their employers.


Table of Contents

What is Quid Pro Quo Harassment?

There are two main types of sexual harassment in the workplace, hostile work environment and quid pro quo.

They both are types of harassment that violate Title VII, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace but manifest in different ways.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is a type of workplace sexual harassment in which an employee’s submission to or rejection of a superior’s sexual demands affects employment decisions, either positively or negatively.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment typically involves an employee being pressured by a superior to provide sexual favors in order to avoid being fired or demoted, or in order to get a promotion, raise or perk.

Even if the superior doesn’t intend to follow through on the implied threat or benefit, the perception by the victim that the threat or benefit is real constitutes quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Examples of Quid Pro Quo Harassment

In quid pro quo harassment, the harasser and the victim can be opposite genders or the same and of any sexual orientation or gender identity.

Most quid pro quo sexual harassment involve a male perpetrator manipulating a female employee, but any combination of genders, orientations and identities can be represented.


Example 1:

Sandi’s manager, Matthew, asks her to have dinner with him at his home. She declines.

He asks again, this time hinting that there might be some discussion over dinner about a new role for her in the company.

Sandi is torn but accepts because she really wants a promotion and doesn’t want to jeopardize her chances by turning down her manager.


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Example 2:

Daniel’s boss, Christine, makes frequent flirtatious comments when they are alone that make him uncomfortable. Daniel ignores the comments because he needs the job.

Christine asks Daniel to stay late one evening to work on a project. She asks him to give her a back massage and makes suggestive remarks about taking things further, telling him that he can avoid the next round of layoffs if he “plays his cards right”.


Example 3:

Jeff’s new job in the mailroom of a large law firm requires him to work nights. His supervisor, Richard, frequently makes sexually suggestive comments to Jeff. Richard hints that Jeff can have the sought-after day shift if he submits to Richard’s advances.


Example 4:

In the video below, part of a 6-part series written and directed by Sigal Avin and executive produced by David Schwimmer, Mazdack Rassi of MILK Studios and Sigal Avin, a boss makes sexual advances towards a new employee, while talking to her about her role in the company.

What is NOT Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Human interactions are complex and sometimes the lines are unclear between what is ok and what isn’t. In fact, what is ok for one person may not be ok for another. So it’s important to distinguish between human interactions that may be awkward, or even illegal for other reasons, and quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is not:

  • A consensual relationship between a superior and subordinate that doesn’t have any effect (or anticipated effect) on employment decisions.
  • A consensual relationship between employees who are not in a position to influence employment decisions affecting one or the other partner
  • Any sexual harassment that does not involve a “this for that” exchange, where sexual activity is linked (or perceived to be linked) to employment decisions
  • Any “this for that” exchange that is not sexual in nature but affects employment decisions (for example, the exchange of money or favors that are not sexual in nature for employment benefits or to avoid negative consequences)

10 Signs of Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Quid pro quo harassment can be hard to spot, because it can be subtle. Employees are often reluctant to report it if they are receiving a benefit from it. And If an employee feels the activity is preventing them from losing their job, they have even less incentive to report it.

So how can employers, managers, supervisors and HR spot the signs of quid pro quo harassment without the cooperation of the victim? There are some red flags that you can keep an eye out for, but keep in mind that a red flag is just a reason to investigate, not proof of wrongdoing.

Watch for these signs in your workplace:

  • A new employee seems to be advancing more quickly than they should be
  • A less-than-stellar employee is kept while more competent ones are let go
  • Unexplained friction among employees
  • Rumors about a relationship between a manager and subordinate
  • Signs of favoritism in a department
  • Manager who is protective of an employee
  • Unusually close relationship between a manager and subordinate
  • Results on employee evaluations that don’t seem to match observed behavior and results
  • Pay increases that don’t seem in line with performance
  • A good performer is demoted or is denied a benefit they should receive

What to Do if You Suspect Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Armed with the list of red flags for quid pro quo harassment in the workplace, employers can keep a close eye on some of the warning signs and investigate anything that looks suspicious.

But investigating a warning sign requires tact. Here are some tips for conducting a sexual harassment investigation that can help.

That new employee might just be incredibly driven, productive and deserving of advancement. There may be a reason why a seemingly competent person is being let go while a less productive worker remains.

And a rumor about a relationship between a supervisor and subordinate may be just that: a rumor. Tread carefully when questioning employees about interpersonal relationships.

If you suspect that quid pro quo sexual harassment is occurring in your organization, but you are not sure:

  • Monitor both the supervisor and subordinate for signs of stress or friction
  • Watch for signs that the subordinate employee is distressed and ensure there is a neutral person he or she can talk/report to
  • Encourage open communication between employees and human resources
  • Consider implementing an anonymous reporting mechanism if you don’t already have one
  • Implement company-wide sexual harassment training that includes quid pro quo harassment scenarios

Addressing Quid Pro Quo Harassment Complaints

If an employee complains of quid pro quo sexual harassment it is up to the employer to investigate the allegation quickly and thoroughly, using an impartial investigator.

Failure to investigate promptly could leave the employee in a difficult, even dangerous, situation. It can also give the impression that the company doesn’t take harassment allegations seriously and could expose the company to the risk of lawsuits and reputation damage.

Many victims who come forward with complaints of sexual harassment want their complaints to be kept confidential. There can be many reasons for this:

  • Fear of retaliation
  • Fear of physical or psychological harm
  • Embarrassment or shame about the relationship
  • Concerns about exposing infidelity
  • Worries about losing the respect of other colleagues
  • Reluctance to implicate third parties who knew about the harassment

It’s important to address these complaints in a way that respects the wishes of the complainant but also takes into account the seriousness of the allegations and the need for swift and decisive action.

Don’t promise confidentiality unless you are sure you can keep the promise. It’s often wiser to advise the complainant that you will keep the complaint confidential to the best of your ability, but that it may be necessary to share some information with others in the company for the purpose of conducting a fair and thorough investigation.

If the complainant and alleged harasser work together, in most cases they should be separated while the complaint is being addressed.

Just make sure that the complainant isn’t placed into a role or situation that could be seen as retaliatory.

Investigating Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Sexual harassment allegations are among the most sensitive issues to investigate. It’s sometimes wise to engage an outside investigator with no ties to anyone involved in the allegations. It’s critical that investigators stick to the facts and question all parties with sensitivity and tact.

The investigation should focus on the following questions:

  • Who was involved?
  • What was said and done?
  • When and how often did this occur?
  • Where did the incident(s) occur?
  • Why is this, or is this not, sexual harassment?

In order to decide whether or not the incident in the complaint is quid pro quo sexual harassment, you’ll need to answer the following questions:

  • Was the alleged conduct sexual in nature?
  • Was the alleged conduct unwelcome?
  • Did the conduct involve an exchange of favors or a threat of harm for a failure to comply?

Note: If the first two criteria apply and the conduct was severe and pervasive, you may be looking at a hostile work environment, rather than quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Preventing Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

To prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, employers need to focus on more than compliance and enforcing rules. Effective harassment prevention is a blend of:

  • Policies that forbid harassment specifically
  • Culture that encourages respect and open dialogue
  • Training and awareness to ensure everyone understand what harassment is
  • Effective investigations to ensure that harassment is not allowed to continue
  • Enforcement of consequences for violations of harassment policies
  • Clear communication of anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies
  • Tone from the top that sets expectations and showcases examples of respectful conduct

An anonymous reporting mechanism can be a powerful ally in the fight to prevent workplace misconduct, but it has limitations for sexual harassment reporting.


Webinar: Investigating and Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Watch this one-hour webinar to learn how to investigate and prevent quid pro quo and other forms of sexual harassment in the workplace. (Includes one hour of CE credit with HRCI)



While it can lessen the fear of retaliation, eventually the complainant will have to self-identify in order to bring a complaint to fruition.

This is where a well-communicated and strictly enforced anti-retaliation policy can help.

Discouraging Retaliation

Studies have shown that only 6 to 13 per cent of employees who experience harassment file a formal complaint, meaning that the vast majority, 87 to 94 per cent, don’t report harassment. Why? Retaliation, or even the perceived threat of retaliation.

Of those 6 to 13 per cent of victims who have spoken out against mistreatment 75 per cent faced some sort of retaliation. Retaliation is a real threat, and as long as it is allowed to persist, victims will be silenced and sexual harassment will continue unabated.

A strong anti-retaliation policy, accompanied by frequent training and strict enforcement, can be your best soldier in the fight against sexual harassment of every type.