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Harassment: quid pro quo versus hostile work environment

Neither employees nor employers want to see harassment occur within the workplace. For the employee, it can be degrading, frustrating and make it impossible to do your job effectively. For the employer, it can damage every aspect of your business, from morale to productivity. But not all harassment is created equally.

Quid pro quo harassment

Generally speaking, harassment is a form of workplace discrimination and is prohibited by federal law. It involves unwelcome conduct against a protected class – race, color, religion, sex and other classes. But there are different types of harassment that can occur.

Quid pro quo is Latin for “something for something” – an exchange. In the context of harassment, the exchange in question requires something from the employee that would be considered offensive and unwanted by the employee. In exchange, the employee is “permitted” to receive an increase in pay or even to keep their job. Although quid pro quo harassment often involves a form of sexual exchange, it is in no way limited to sexual harassment.

Hostile work environment

Because quid pro quo harassment involves an exchange where some facet of the employee’s job is on the line, it also involves someone in a position of authority over the employee. This is not the case with a hostile work environment – this type of harassment can be created by any employee, regardless of their relationship with the harassed employee.

A hostile work environment is created when one employee engages in conduct that another reasonable person would find intimidating, hostile or abusive. The conduct must be pervasive, in the sense that it is ongoing. Annoyances and isolated incidents are typically not enough to create a hostile work environment.

Although quid pro quo and a hostile work environment are different forms of harassment, they are not different in the eyes of the law. Both must be guarded against, so as not to infect the business in question nor harm the employees subject to the harassment.