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Types of Sexual Harassment: What’s the Difference Between Quid Pro Quo Harassment vs Hostile Work Environment?

Types of Sexual Harassment: What’s the Difference Between Quid Pro Quo Harassment vs Hostile Work Environment?

Harassment in the workplace comes in different forms, but two types of sexual harassment stand out: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment.

While both violate critical laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and create an abusive environment, fundamental differences set them apart, which are worth understanding.

Let’s explore quid pro quo and hostile work environment harassment deeper, discover definitions, review examples and legal implications, and learn how to recognize them in the workplace.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Before diving into quid pro quo and hostile work environment harassment, let’s review the fundamentals of workplace sexual harassment.

Legally, sexual harassment constitutes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature under federal and California state laws.

The behavior violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and can alter an offender’s employment terms and conditions.

Sexual harassment manifests both verbally, physically, and visually.

  • Verbal sexual harassment involves unwanted sexual comments, jokes, suggestions, and demands, including requests for dates or sexual favors.
  • Physical sexual harassment encompasses inappropriate touching, groping, and assault.
  • Visual sexual harassment includes displaying sexually explicit posters, photos, cartoons, or drawings.

Victims can be of any gender, with harassers as coworkers, managers, or third parties, like clients.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Now, let’s explore the leading type of sexual harassment in greater depth – quid pro quo.


Quid pro quo harassment involves threats to alter the terms or conditions of one’s employment in exchange for sexual favors. The Latin phrase “quid pro quo” means “this for that” or “something for something,” in this case, job-related activities for sex.

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when someone in a position of authority, like a supervisor or professor, demands sexual favors from a subordinate, like an employee or student, in exchange for a promotion, favorable performance review, good grade, or other key aspect of the victim’s job or academic success.

Even a single threat can constitute quid pro quo sexual harassment, violating federal and state laws.

Noteworthy Aspects

Several factors set quid pro harassment apart:

  • Perpetrated by Someone in Power: Quid pro quo harassment involves a power dynamic between the harasser and victim. The perpetrator has influence over the victim’s job or academic activities.
  • Threat is Key: Central to quid pro quo is a threat of substantive changes to employment terms or conditions if the victim doesn’t grant sexual favors. Without threat, it may constitute hostile work environment harassment instead.
  • Intimidating and Offensive: By definition, quid pro quo harassment creates an intimidating, offensive environment for the victim by the harasser exploiting their position of authority.

Legal Implications

Quid pro quo harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a prohibition of sex discrimination that alters the terms, conditions, and privileges of one’s job.

Victims can pursue legal action with evidence of threats to employment linked to sexual favors. Even a single threat can demonstrate quid pro quo harassment. Punitive damages against the employer may apply if they knew about the harassment but neglected to stop it.

Hostile Work Environment Harassment

Unlike quid pro quo, hostile work environment harassment holds some different distinctions.


Hostile work environment harassment refers to unwelcome sexual conduct that unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. It alters the employment conditions without directly linking threats to job status or activities.

Noteworthy Aspects

Factors shaping hostile work environment harassment include:

  • No Job Threats: Unlike quid pro quo, a hostile work environment lacks direct threats to job status or activities such as coercion for sex. However, the harassment still makes doing one’s job difficult.
  • Committed by Anyone: Hostile work environment, harassment perpetrators can be coworkers, managers, clients, or anyone the victim interacts with at work, not only supervisors.
  • Multiple Victims: Frequently, hostile work environment harassment impacts multiple victims in a workplace.

Legal Implications

For hostile work environment claims, victims must show conduct was severe and pervasive enough to alter employment terms and conditions and create an abusive environment. Employers can be liable for failure to stop known harassment.

The courts assess the frequency and severity of harassment, impact on job performance, and determine legal liability.

Key Differences

While quid pro quo and hostile work environment harassment both create an abusive environment, critical differences include:

  • Threat: Quid pro quo directly threatens employment activities, while a hostile work environment makes doing one’s job difficult.
  • Power: Quid pro quo harassment leverages power differentials, while a hostile work environment can come from anyone in the workplace.
  • Scope: A hostile work environment frequently impacts multiple victims while quid pro quo directly threatens a single victim.

Recognizing Harassment

Workplace harassment appears in many forms, including:

  • Sexual comments, jokes, and requests.
  • Seductive or inappropriate letters, notes, emails.
  • Displaying sexually explicit images or objects.
  • Invasion of personal space, inappropriate touching.
  • Sexually suggestive gestures or sounds.
  • Blocking one’s movement in a sexual way.
  • Sexual assault.

Learning how to identify and report workplace sexual harassment represents the first vital step to stopping it.

Resources for guidance include the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and sexual harassment attorneys who regularly handle these cases. You have rights and recourse.

In Summary

Quid pro quo and hostile work environment harassment stand as the two primary forms of sexual harassment in the workplace. Both create an abusive environment, interfering with work activities.

However, quid pro quo directly threatens employment in exchange for sexual favors, while a hostile work environment lacks that explicit job coercion.

Talk to a California Employment Law Attorney

To learn more about your rights regarding workplace sexual harassment or explore options around a potential case or claim, contact the Malk Law Firm in Beverly Hills for a confidential consultation.

Our respected southern California sexual harassment attorneys have many years of successfully representing employees and understand this complex area of law.

Whether quid pro quo or hostile work environment related, the personal injury attorneys at the Malk Law Firm can help you make things right again.

We offer compassionate support, helping victims understand their options and pursue possible legal remedies.

Author Bio

Michael Malk is the Founder and Managing Attorney of Malk Law Firm, a Seattle employee rights law firm he started in 2007. With more than 20 years of experience practicing law, he has dedicated his career to representing clients throughout California and Washington in a wide range of legal areas, including unpaid wages, sexual harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination, and other employee rights matters.

Michael received his Juris Doctor from the University of California— Davis School of Law and is a member of the State Bar of California, the State Bar of Washington, and the American Bar Association. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including being named as one of the “Top Attorneys in Southern California” by Los Angeles Magazine in 2018 and being selected as a Super Lawyer for six consecutive years.

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