What Does Quid Pro Quo Mean in HR?
The term “quid pro quo” has been with us for a long time. It is Latin, and originally meant “something for something, or “a favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something”. It’s embedded deep in Western culture, and can be seen in common phrases, such as “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. However, in the business world, particularly in HR, quid pro quo has come to mean something very specific: a particular type of sexual harassment.
What Is Quid Pro Quo Harassment?
There are many types of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment is a specific type, though. It is tied to the original meaning of the phrase, “something for something”. In this situation, a manager or another higher-up offers or hints that they will give the employee something of value (a raise, a promotion, etc.) in exchange for sexual favors. It can also occur when a higher-up says that they will not discipline an employee in exchange for a sexual favor, and can even occur during the hiring process (a job offer is contingent on the applicant providing a sexual favor).
What Genders May Be Involved?
The harasser and the victim can be of opposite genders or the same gender. Quid pro quo harassment can also encompass any sexual orientation and occur with any gender identity. However, the most commonly seen examples revolve around a male aggressor and a female victim. Women can also be the aggressor, though.
Must It Involve Direct Mention of Sex or Sexual Acts?
No, quid pro quo harassment does not need to include any outright mention of sex or sexual acts. It may hint at them, or it may simply involve a manager getting an employee to do something (that might lead to sexual contact in the future) in exchange for something else.
For instance, if your manager were to ask you to go to dinner with them, but you refused, and they responded by hinting that if you were to join them for dinner, there might be a discussion about a promotion or a raise, it would count as quid pro quo harassment.
Here’s another example: your boss frequently makes suggestive comments when the two of you are alone. You ignore those comments because you need the job. Then, one day your boss asks you to stay late to work on a priority project. During that process, your boss asks for a back rub and then hints that if things were to go farther, you might be immune to the upcoming layoffs that will shake the company.
Yet another example: You’re a new hire at a big firm, and because you’re new, you have to work the night shift. You don’t like that very much, not just because it throws off your schedule, but because your manager frequently flirts with you. Then, one day your manager hints that if you were to take things a little further, you might land a daytime shift very quickly.
All of these examples involve implied sexual favors in exchange for something that the employee wants, even if the aggressor never comes right out and demands sex in exchange for a raise, a promotion, or keeping a job.
What Does Not Qualify as Quid Pro Quo Harassment?
While many interactions fall under the quid pro quo umbrella, some situations do not. Understanding these will help you determine whether the situation in which you find yourself qualifies as quid pro quo, a hostile work environment, or something else entirely.
- If you and your superior (or someone under you) are involved in a consensual relationship that does not affect employment decisions, it does not qualify as quid pro quo (or any other type of harassment, as it is consensual for both parties).
- If you and another employee are in a consensual relationship and neither of you can affect the other’s employment or employment decisions, it does not fall under quid pro quo.
- If you are the victim of sexual harassment that does not involve “something for something” or “this for that”, it does not qualify as quid pro quo harassment. It may be considered a hostile work environment, or any number of other types of sexual harassment, though, and it is both illegal and unethical.
- If you are asked for anything non-sexual in nature in exchange for something that affects an employment decision (payment in exchange for not being laid off, for instance), it does not qualify as quid pro quo sexual harassment. It may fall under another type of quid pro quo activity and is most likely illegal.
Signs of Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment
HR professionals, managers, executives, and employees at all levels should be on the lookout for signs of quid pro quo harassment in the workplace. The following signs may indicate someone is being victimized in this manner:
- A new employee is moving up the ranks much more quickly than is usual.
- An employee who routinely underperforms maintains employment while higher-performing employees are laid off.
- A manager seems particularly protective of a specific employee.
- There are rumors about a relationship between a manager and someone under them.
- There are signs of favoritism.
- Performance evaluations for an employee do not match their actions and behaviors in the workplace.
- Someone who routinely performs above expectations is demoted.
- Someone receives a pay increase but their performance does not seem to warrant the raise.
The Bottom Line
Quid pro quo always means “this for that” or “something for something”. It plays a wider role in organizations than just sexual harassment, but quid pro quo harassment is one of the most common issues that HR must address.
However, any situation in which there is a “something for something” exchange should be considered potentially unethical and possibly illegal and should be investigated thoroughly. For HR professionals, this can mean a difficult road, as fear of reprisal on the part of the victim may make them hesitant to speak out even when directly confronted.
The HR department should be alert for signs of quid pro quo behavior throughout the organization and should be prepared to take immediate steps.
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