Quid pro Quo

Quid pro Quo type of Sexual harassment – What you need to know

**Content Note: This article talks about quid pro quo and workplace sexual harassment, with mentions of detailed case studies.

Smita’s story, Part 1: “I was engaged, and I..er. I was not looking for a relationship of any sort. I mean, I was friendly, but I’m always friendly. To everyone I mean. That just is… that I am open, and frank, I say what I think and include those around me. It wasn’t anything more than that…But the things he said later really impacted me and made me feel dirty, as if somehow it was my fault.”

The definition of sexual harassment as per the POSH Act or Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013[Law], is broad and values consent and personal boundaries – looking at boundary violations beyond only unwanted physical contact.

In fact, Section 2(n) of the act describes sexual harassment as any unwelcome physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwanted sexual advances or flirtation that crosses the line, demands or requests for sexual favours, sexually explicit remarks or gestures, displaying or sharing of pornographic or sexually suggestive images.

The Law also highlights sexual harassment that may occur through the creation of an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, that interferes with a woman’s work

performance as well as spotlights the element of power dynamics that may show up at workplace through Quid pro Quo.

Among the various forms of harassment, quid pro quo sexual harassment is one of the particularly serious, complex and insidious manifestations of this kind of inappropriate workplace behaviours.

Smita’s story, Part 2: “It started with what I thought were compliments, actually. I mean he always jokingly said things like “Wear this more often”, “That shade of lipstick looks so good on you”, “I like your hair loose”, “Why are you wearing a mask, I love seeing your lips” and it was always with a smirk that made me squirm – but I would usually ignore it or tell myself it’s just who he is, it’s a compliment, this is the culture here, he’s a big shot at work, you know – I was too scared to make things unpleasant. But that changed one day when he started talking about his trip abroad somewhere. I particularly remember this incident, that I couldn’t make excuses for -he was talking about how he needed a break and was looking forward to a massage. Then he said, “Are you sure you’re not coming? You need to relax too. I can make sure we’ll have a…. happy ending”

What is Quid Pro Quo?

Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that means “something for something”, referring to a sort of exchange.

In the context of the Law, it refers to a specific type of sexual harassment that occurs within professional contexts, involving a power differential. Simply put, it involves someone in a position of power demanding sexual favors or engaging in sexually inappropriate behavior in exchange for preferential treatment (job benefits, promotions, protection) and can even involve the use of threats of negative consequences when met with refusal.

What makes it insidious is the influence and abuse of perceived power to coerce behaviour from one who feels like they are at a disadvantage in the face of it.

This perceived power usually involves seniority at work, age, a higher position at the workplace or having direct control over one’s career. But it may also involve more subtle aspects like social standing, having a larger professional network, fame – and in some cases we have witnessed – may also involve financial power or any other indicator that puts one person in a position of advantage over the other.

These instances may be direct or implied demands for sexual favors that we have seen emerging during appraisals, interviews, lateral shifts, presenting opportunities and other aspects of growth and career advancement.

However, in the course of our experience handling these cases we have also noted long term seemingly innocuous efforts akin to grooming, which start off very subtle, with praise, active support above and beyond the norm and ‘open’, progressive conversations around sex or sexuality. This tends to culminate in a sexual advance that cannot be ignored, and refusal usually leads to withdrawing of all earlier preferential treatment.

Quid pro Quo is a flagrant abuse of power, that creates an intimidating work environment. The power differential present in this type of sexual harassment, compounds the number and nature of obstacles to saying no, drawing clear boundaries and even coming forward to complain about inappropriate behaviour.

Smita’s story, Part 3: “I tried to make it a joke and laughed, but avoided him after that. I couldn’t bear to be alone with him, and would leave his messages on read. I was so scared, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt unsafe when he looked at me. I was scared to complain too- I really love my job and needed to work. But one day he cornered me near the coffee machine, grabbing my arms and told me plainly that my behaviour and avoidance was not making him happy. I needed to make him happy if I wanted to be happy here. I felt the anger and the threat behind what he said to me. After all, he is my direct manager and involved in my appraisals.”

What is the impact of Quid Pro Quo?

Person’s may often experience emotional distress, anxiety, byer vigilance, nervousness and a compromised sense of self-worth. Their ability to trust in relationships may also be impaired due to the onslaught of manipulation they may experience.In Smita’s story, things started out in a subtle way, with comments and eventually led to a veiled threat of an adverse impact on her worklife.Often the subtle nature of this harassment makes it difficult for a person to trust themselves and their feeling of discomfort initially. This is further aggravated by confusing informal and accepted workplace interactions that seem to support obscure boundaries, and by responses from the person engaging in the inappropriate behaviour and others who the aggrieved may speak to that tend to be gaslighting in nature. For example, statements like “That never happened” / “Are you remembering that correctly?”/ “Don’t be prudish, this is normal”/ “But I have never had that experience” / “Did you do something to invite this…” can be particularly confusing to the aggrieved.While the experience of sexual harassment is traumatic in itself to the aggrieved, it is further exacerbated by the psychological impact of feeling helpless or powerless within the dynamics of quid pro quo and feeling constantly unsafe at work.

This emotional distress can affect a person’s job performance, cause them to miss work, or even resign and may even have a detrimental impact on their personal lives.

Elements of quid pro quo may also be noted in the recent case involving the allegations of sexual harassment by several women wrestlers against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. The wrestlers have openly also alleged that there was ‘an environment of “fear and intimidation” in national camps’ and present in interactions with some national coaches acting on Singh’s behalf – thereby underscoring the emotional impact of the experience of fear that results in this situation. This fear could be linked to the uncertainty of tomorrow, lack of options of whom to trust or speak to about the matter, and even the uncertainty of being believed or being able to access resolution.

What do we need to keep in mind as EM’s, IC members and other stakeholders of POSH process when it comes to Quid pro Quo?

It is crucial to understand that quid pro quo harassment not only violates legal boundaries but also undermines the principles of dignity, equality, and consent.

Addressing quid pro quo harassment requires a comprehensive approach that includes raising awareness, implementing clear zero tolerance policies, and providing avenues for reporting and seeking redress. Sensitization of all employees regards consent, what constitutes sexual harassment, expected professional behaviour and the stance of the organisation plays a vital role in empowering individuals to recognize, prevent, and respond to such misconduct.

As Internal Committee (IC) members, it is important to access specialized training programs designed to empower the IC to recognize and respond to such complaints sensitively and promptly. IC members must be able to respond effectively even in situations where there are threats, and understand how to navigate these instances when there may not be any physical evidence of the inappropriate behaviour. It is essential to be able to set aside or be cognizant of any bias that may enter the inquiry process and reject the manipulation of the person in power. Moreover, it is paramount that IC members are well versed with the protocol laid out as per Law, when it comes to dealing with inquiries into complaints of sexual harassment, including understanding the limits of their role when if comes to the “Employer” of the organization and the role of the Local Committee (LC)

If you or your organization would like to sign up for capacity building of the IC members, to know more about this role, write to us at connect@equilibrioadvisory.org

Written by Rosanna Rodrigues 

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