What is sexual harassment in the workplace?

The U.S. Supreme Court defines sexual harassment in the workplace as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that creates a hostile work environment. Any form of harassment that fits into this definition is illegal and both employers and employees should be aware so that they can either prevent it or report it when it is occurring. Although the definition of sexual harassment encompasses many kinds of actions, the courts and legal system have broken it down into two large sub-categories: quid pro quo and hostile environment sexual harassment.

Quid pro quo

Quid pro quo means “something for something” in Latin and is used by lawyers and judges to describe a certain type of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is where a supervisor or co-worker in the workplace makes employment decisions based on the employee’s submission to or rejection of sexual advances, sexual favors or behavior of a sexual nature. For example, if a woman is applying for a job and the supervisor/hiring official tells her that she can only have the job if she has sex with him, this would be quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is broad

Keep in mind that the favor exchanged for a sexual action can be anything from hiring, to getting a promotion, to receiving a job perk. Also, even though quid pro quo sexual harassment is often committed by a supervisor or boss, it can be committed by a co-worker of equal or lesser rank within the workplace. Thus, anytime something is being offered in exchange for a sexual action, quid pro quo harassment is probably occurring.

Hostile environment sexual harassment

Hostile environment sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor or co-worker makes sexual comments or advances that create an offensive or hostile environment for the affected employee to work in. If these advances or comments affect the employee and his/her ability to do the job in any way it is hostile environment sexual harassment. This type of harassment is also broad and can cover a variety of actions such as:

  • Personal questions of a sexual nature
  • Vulgar or offensive language
  • Physical conduct of a sexual nature that is degrading
  • Posting sexually explicit photos that offend other employees
  • Telling jokes of a sexual nature that demean people’s gender
  • Commenting inappropriately on a person’s dress
  • Repeatedly requesting dates from someone who isn’t interested

In short, hostile environment sexual harassment is broad and so if the action is of a sexual nature and affects an employee’s ability to do their job, it is probably illegal sexual harassment.

Important things to keep in mind

  • In quid pro quo sexual harassment an employee can still sue or take action against the perpetrator even if they submitted to the requested sexual action.
  • In hostile environment harassment the employer can be at fault even if she was unaware that the harassment was taking place as long as the court finds that she should have been aware. Also, the employer and the offender can be held liable.


Sexual harassment in the workplace comes in many forms. It can be broken down into two broad sub-categories, quid pro quo and hostile environment harassment. If you are an employer or employee you should be aware of what sexual harassment in the workplace is and you should take action to stop it if you know it is occurring or it is happening to you. To find out exactly what sexual harassment entails where you live and work contact a local attorney who can explain the law in detail.[1]



[1] Fred S. Steingold, The Employer’s Legal Handbook: Manage your Employees and Workplace Effectively 163-166 (Alayna Schroeder ed., Nolo 9th ed. 2009).