Hostile Work Environment vs. Quid Pro Quo

Hostile work environment and quid pro quo have a habit of hanging out together. Where you find one, it’s likely you’ll find the other. They’re linked by the common denominator of sexual harassment. However, a few differences separate these two.

Let’s check out the definitions quickly.

Hostile work environment occurs when workplace behavior is severe and pervasive, targeting an employee and making them feel unsafe.

Quid pro quo occurs when a supervisor pressures an employee into a sexual favor in exchange for a promotion, higher pay, or a promise not to blackmail.

Sexual harassment, the link between hostile work environment and quid pro quo, refers to the harassment of a man or woman in the workplace by another man or woman.

Hostile Work Environment vs. Quid Pro Quo

Employment law protects employees from workplace harassment. When hostile work environment or quid pro quo is recognized, you need to take steps to seek change within your workplace. This means knowing how to spot hostile work environment and quid pro quo.

Hostile Work Environment

Considered a grey area in the workplace, hostile work environment can be very difficult to spot. But the impact of this behavior can be bad for employers and employees. In fact, hostile work environment complaints are often measured more by what happened after the claim was made. Did the employer respond appropriately?

Quick Overview of Hostile Work Environment Behaviors

  • Unwanted, inappropriate behavior
  • Sexual advances
  • Obscene photos
  • Gender discrimination
  • Racial comments and offensive jokes

Most often, hostile work environment is defined by behavior that makes other employees feel uncomfortable due to their sexual nature.

Main Differences of Hostile Work Environment


Acts that reveal hostile work environment are consistent and occur often. It’s not a one-time action. That’s what makes it possible to claim that the entire environment is hostile.

Not Necessarily Directed at an Employee

Sexual jokes made around the office that aren’t directed at any one person could be harassment. A secret affair between two coworkers that means one receives extra work favors could be harassment against other employees. Extreme favoritism can also feel like harassment.


Hostile work environment is not always just sexual. It can be harassment for gender, too. A man-hater or a misogynist boss would create an uncomfortable workplace for certain employees.

Employer Knew and Did Nothing

Since hostile work environment can be hard to prove, it is important to be able to show that the employer knew about it. An employer who fails to do something about the behavior is in trouble. The employer is responsible to take steps to resolve the problem.

Quid Pro Quo

Harassment based on the this-for-that principle of quid pro quo is fairly straight forward. This is the type of harassment that is most commonly shown on television and movies. Someone in authority offers a lesser employee something for a sexual favor. Although not as hard to recognize as hostile work environment, quid pro quo comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Quick Overview of Quid Pro Quo Behaviors

  • Refusing work benefits unless employee agrees to requests
  • Punishing a worker for not doing what was asked
  • Assigning work based on sexual favor
  • Threatening termination if employee doesn’t perform sexual act
  • Writing performance reports based on sexual favors

Main Differences of Quid Pro Quo

Once is Enough

While hostile work environment requires consistent occurrences, quid pro quo only needs to happen once. One offer or threat or question that breathes a this-for-that situation is against the law and can be reported. If your employer fails to handle the situation, you may have a case under the law.

Who Is Involved

Quid pro quo usually is an exchange of a sexual favor for a career-changing benefit or otherwise. Therefore, the person must have enough power to make these decisions. Quid pro quo usually involved a manager or supervisor who is interacting with someone who reports to them.

While hostile work environment and quid pro quo are usually said within a breath of each other, they are two different things. But if you experience either in your workplace, you may have a case. Speaking with an employment lawyer will solidify whether or not you have a case under law.

Chat with an employment attorney: (412) 626-5626 or