Most of us have a broad understanding of what sexual harassment means in the workplace. The average person knows that it is unlawful to harass a person because of that person’s sex. The average person also knows the range of actions that could subject an employer or supervisor to liability such as unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and so on. As transparent as this sounds, bringing sexual harassment claims can be stressful and convoluted. To simplify things, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has categorized sexual harassment into two distinct categories—Quid Pro Quo harassment (“QPQ”) and Hostile Environment harassment. These distinctions are important—not only are the standards for each different, but they mean different things in terms of employer liability.
Quid Pro Quo Harassment—“something for something” in Latin—is essentially sexual blackmail. It involves demands for sexual favors in exchange for some employment benefit like a promotion, a raise, or a recommendation. This can also happen when, for example, an employer threatens termination or a demotion if the employee does not provide sexual favors. On the other hand, Hostile Environment harassment occurs when sexual harassment at work is so severe that it creates a hostile and unhealthy work environment. This often interferes with the employee’s job performance and causes stress and discontent in the workplace.
Both types of harassment are actionable, but differ in important respects. First, one instance of QPQ harassment is sufficient to hold an employer liable. In contrast, to hold an employer liable for Hostile Environment harassment, the conduct must be severe and pervasive, not just a one time or isolated incident. A crude remark or a tasteless joke is not enough. Second, an employee claiming QPQ harassment must show that he forfeited an employment benefit (i.e. promotion or bonus) or suffered another tangible loss (i.e. termination). That is, there must be an adverse change in the employee’s status. In contrast, the United States Supreme Court has held that tangible harm is not required for Hostile Environment harassment. This kind of claim is ideal for those who do not suffer a lack of promotion or a firing, for example, but nevertheless feel sexually harassed in the workplace. Finally, an employer liable for QPQ harassment cannot assert any affirmative defenses, but can if he or she is liable for Hostile Environment harassment.
Recognizing different types of sexual harassment and identifying key differences is important in assessing your legal options. It is important to contact an employment lawyer who can accurately sift through the facts to determine what type of harassment you were subjected to.