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Sexual Harassment Definitions

Outten & Golden LLP

This page provides answers to the following questions:

1. I've heard the term "quid pro quo" when talking about harassment. What does it mean?

2. What does the term "tangible employment action" mean?

3. What does the term "hostile environment" mean?

4. What do the terms "severe or pervasive" mean?

1. I've heard the term "quid pro quo" when talking about harassment. What does it mean?

The term "quid pro quo," Latin for "this for that," refers to when your submission to or rejection of sexual favors is used as the basis for employment decisions about you or is made a condition of your employment. For example, if a boss, supervisor or someone with authority either demands or implies that you must provide sexual favors in return for being hired, keeping your job, or getting a promotion, that is "quid pro quo" sexual harassment.

Recent court decisions have moved away from using the term "quid pro quo," after the Supreme Court instead used the term "harassment resulting in a tangible employment action," but it is still sometimes used when talking about certain types of sexual harassment.

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2. What does the term "tangible employment action" mean?

A "tangible employment action" means a significant change in employment status. Examples include hiring, firing, promotion, demotion, undesirable reassignment, a decision causing a significant change in benefits, compensation decisions, and work assignment.

Harassment can cause a tangible employment action if a supervisor fires or demotes you because you reject his or her sexual demands, or promotes you because you submit to his or her sexual demands. Whether or not a tangible employment action has occurred is important in determining to what extent your employer will be legally responsible for the harassment. For more information, see question 12 on our page on sexual harassment.

Any employment action qualifies as "tangible" if it results in a significant change in your employment status. For example, significantly changing your duties in your existing job is a tangible employment action regardless of whether you keep the same salary and benefits. Similarly, changing your duties in a way that blocks your opportunity for promotion or salary increases also is a tangible employment action.

On the other hand, an employment action is not "tangible" if it results in only an insignificant change in your employment status. For example, altering your job title does not qualify as a tangible employment action if there is no change in your salary, benefits, duties, or prestige, and the only effect is a bruised ego. However, if there is a significant change in the status of the position because the new title is less prestigious and thereby effectively constitutes a demotion, this would be a tangible employment action.

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3. What does the term "hostile environment" mean?

Even if there has not been a tangible employment action, sexual harassment can still be against the law if it is severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of your employment and create an abusive working environment for you.

Some of the factors which may affect this determination include:

The standard for determining whether the conduct is enough to create a hostile environment is that of a "reasonable person," with consideration given to the context in which the alleged harassment took place. This objective standard guards against claims brought by hypersensitive people who are more easily offended than most, while also recognizing that from the victim's perspective, certain conduct can cause a hostile work environment even if some people rely on stereotyped notions of acceptable workplace behavior to conclude the conduct is harmless or insignificant.

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4. What do the terms "severe or pervasive" mean?

The conduct of the harasser must either be severe or it must be pervasive to be hostile environment sexual harassment that is against the law. A single incident probably will not be considered sexual harassment unless it is severe, such as a single incident of rape, attempted rape or other sexual assault.

Although a single unwanted request for a date or one sexually suggestive comment might be inappropriate, offend you or otherwise be unwelcome, it may not be sexual harassment that is against the law. A number of separate incidents that alone are relatively minor may add up to sexual harassment if the incidents viewed as a whole affect your work environment and as a result become "pervasive."

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This page was updated on April 8, 2005