Among the first steps toward preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is to train and educate employees on the types of behaviors that can lead to sexual harassment incidents and claims. In the US, the terms “quid pro quo” and “hostile work environment” are used to help categorize behaviors that constitute sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and many state and local laws.
What is sexual harassment?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. However, the agency says, sexual harassment doesn’t have to be of a sexual nature. Offensive remarks about a person’s sex or about women in general can constitute illegal harassment. And as news stories and EEOC announcements regularly confirm, anyone – a supervisor, co-worker, customer or vendor – can be a harasser or target of harassment, regardless of their sex, gender or position.
Quid pro quo
Quid pro quo means “something for something” or “this for that” and occurs when a manager, supervisor or individual in a position of power offers to give or withhold something in exchange for a sexual favor. “Something” could be a job, raise, promotion, special project or an easier shift. Quid pro quo harassment can also manifest as a threat of demotion, termination or a negative performance review if an employee doesn’t comply with a request for a date or sexual favor.
A recent EEOC settlement offers a textbook case of quid pro quo harassment. According to the EEOC press release, a former general manager of a fast food franchise sent texts to two 17-year-old female applicants offering jobs in exchange for sex. When the women didn’t comply, they weren’t hired. To settle the sexual harassment suit, the company that owns and operates the franchises agreed to pay $80,000 to the two women. They will also revise and distribute a policy prohibiting sexual harassment, conduct anti-harassment training for managers and employees, post a public notice about the settlement and report all sexual harassment complaints to the EEOC.
Hostile work environment
A hostile work environment can develop when unwelcome sexual conduct (either verbal or physical) becomes so severe or pervasive that it interferes with a person’s job performance, or creates an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”
Behaviors that can lead to a hostile work environment include:
- Emailing jokes of a sexual nature on a company device
- Engaging in lewd conversations and talking about one’s sex life or fantasies
- Repeatedly commenting on someone’s looks or physical attributes
- Repeatedly asking someone out when the invitation is clearly unwanted
- Touching, hugging or any other physical contact
- Staring at someone or making sexual gestures
- Displaying sexual images at work
- Referring to co-workers and colleagues as “sweetheart” or “baby”
Here’s a real-life example: Last year, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against an airline alleging they allowed a hostile work environment by not taking action to stop a captain from frequently posting sexually explicit images of a flight attendant to different websites. The posts made reference to the flight attendant’s name, home airport and the airline’s tagline. The lawsuit alleges the posts were seen by several male co-workers and negatively affected the flight attendant’s working environment.
Another example involves an EEOC settlement with a company that owns and operates convenience-store gas stations. The company agreed to pay $100,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging they created a hostile work environment for a cashier and then fired her after she complained. The EEOC press release said the area manager propositioned the cashier for sex, frequently made sexually explicit comments and inappropriately touched her on several occasions. When the cashier complained to her female store manager about the area manager’s conduct, the store manager said she couldn’t help the cashier because she, too, was being sexually harassed by the area manager. The cashier was fired by the area manager after she filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC.
Speaking up and stepping in
Targets of quid pro quo and hostile work environment harassment should follow their organization’s complaint process for reporting incidents of harassment, retaliation and discrimination. Many organizations provide employees with access to a hotline, dedicated email address, designated HR manager or other internal contact, who is responsible for promptly following up on complaints.
In addition, bystander intervention can be an effective way to stop bad behavior before it becomes illegal harassment. By encouraging and preparing employees to take appropriate action when they witness harassing behavior, bystander intervention training helps remove the uncertainty of not knowing when or how to intervene, especially in uncomfortable work situations. The EEOC said bystander intervention training is a potential game changer that can have a positive impact on creating a more respectful and civil workplace culture.
The global conversation about sexual harassment is helping to raise awareness and motivate organizations to review and revise anti-harassment policies, procedures, training and other initiatives to address and prevent this pervasive problem. All employees and managers can benefit from a deeper understanding of behaviors that can lead to harassment if left unchecked, and the steps they can take to stop current and future incidents.