Quid Pro Quo

The term quid pro quo is a Latin expression that refers to an exchange of things similar in value. In a quid pro quo exchange, one transfer of goods or services is contingent upon the other transfer. For instance, a shopper who exchanges $3.00 for a gallon of milk at the grocery store has received something for something. Quid pro quo is commonly used in contract law, though it has other applications, such as employment law, in which quid pro quo sexual harassment is sometimes an issue. To explore this concept, consider the following quid pro quo definition.

Definition of Quid Pro Quo


  1. Something for something, or one thing in return for another


1555-1565    Latin (“something for something“)

What is Quid Pro Quo in Business

The very definition of quid pro quo, “something in exchange for something,” implies that a mutually beneficial arrangement has been reached. For instance, Natalie may tell police, “He broke my windshield, so I tossed all of his stuff out on the curb. Quid pro quo, you know?” While this is hardly done in a business setting, it illustrates the concept well.

Quid pro quo in business often has a negative connotation, as many people envision such quid pro quo exchanges occurring between a large corporation and financial establishment, as they make backroom deals. An example of this might occur if a financial entity agreed to distort economic reports in exchange for a corporation’s exclusive business in the future. While the National Association of Securities Dealers (“NASD”) has addressed such shady deals, the public remains a bit skeptical of such “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine,” or “quid pro quo,” deals.

Quid Pro Quo in Contracts

In a more general context, quid pro quo refers to the basis for any contract, in which there must be consideration given for the goods, services, or other thing offered. This “something for something” concept guides the legal system in determining when a legal contract has been entered into, and whether it has been fulfilled.

Example of Quid Pro Quo in Contracts

Natalie needs to have her air conditioning unit repaired, and discusses the matter with her neighbor, Ralph. Ralph, who is an HVAC professional, agrees to do the repairs, including labor and the cost for parts, if Natalie will keep his dogs at her home while he goes on a Florida vacation for two weeks. Although this agreement does not involve the exchange of money, the fact that the parties have agreed to exchange things of value (quid pro quo), one of which depends on the other, makes this a valid contract.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace has become a common complaint. Sexual harassment in which an employer or supervisor bases an important employment decision on an exchange for sex is considered quid pro quo harassment.

Example of Quid Pro Quo Harassment in Employment

Jennifer has worked as a cashier at MegaMart for six months. One night the store manager, Tom, offered to promote her to the position of lead cashier on day shift in exchange for certain sexual favors. In this example of quid pro quo, the something for something, or quid pro quo, is a promotion in exchange for sex.

Quid pro quo harassment occurs in other settings as well, such as in the academic world. If a teacher or school executive bases decisions, such as grades, assignments, performance standards, willingness to provide a recommendation, or help with school work, on the student’s willingness to accept sexual advances, or perform sexual favors, it is considered quid pro quo harassment.

Example of Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Melody, a pretty red-haired freshman in college, is failing Physics. She asks her professor for help understanding the material in the hope of passing the final exam. Professor Smith advises her to go to the library and study harder, then makes a show of telling her he can fit her in for one-on-one tutoring that evening. When Melody arrives and pulls out her study materials, Smith begins making sexual advances.

Melody’s quick rejection makes the professor angry, and he tells her to leave. In this example of quid pro quo sexual harassment, the professor based his willingness to tutor Melody on her willingness to engage in sexual acts.

Types of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace can take different forms. The most common types of sexual harassment in the workplace include quid pro quo harassment, and hostile work environment harassment. The differences between these types of behaviors are often subtle, as the harassment may be the result of overt requests, comments, and actions, as well as non-verbal communications.

In addition to direct offers of providing benefits in exchange for sexual favors, quid pro quo sexual harassment includes such behaviors as:

  • Withholding benefits from, or otherwise penalizing, the employee who refuses to acquiesce to sexual requests
  • Assigning desirable work projects or assignments based on the employee’s submission to sexual requests
  • Basing employee evaluation scores based on the employee’s willingness to cooperate with sexual demands
  • Threatening to fire the employee if he or she does not accept or cooperate with sexual requests

These examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment involve both offers of increased benefits, and withholding benefits, or threats of demotion or termination of employment.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal, and the victim may file a civil lawsuit seeking damages. While, in most legal actions, the plaintiff has the responsibility of proving that the other party, the defendant, did something wrong. In the case of quid pro quo sexual harassment in the workplace, many jurisdictions place the burden of proof on the employer, which must prove that it did not engage in sexually harassing behaviors.

By contrast, hostile work environment sexual harassment is more general in nature. Rather than involving a quid pro quo exchange of favors for benefits, this type of harassment involves an accepted atmosphere of inappropriate or hostile behavior. Behaviors or conditions that may constitute a hostile work environment include a general acceptance of:

  • Questions or derogatory statements about an employee’s sexual preference
  • Personal questions of a sexual nature
  • Physical conduct that is sexually degrading
  • The use of vulgar, crude, or sexually offensive language or gestures
  • Sexually explicit posters, pictures, literature, or other publications that are in plain sight of employees

Quid Pro Quo in Politics

In the political arena, quid pro quo is a common way of doing business. An individual, corporation, or other entity or group may give financial support to a politician’s campaign, in exchange for the politician’s direct support of the group’s agenda or activity. Many people in the general public see these agreements as bribes, in which the individual or group is purchasing the allegiance of the politician in future decisions or legislation. Any individual that takes his political career seriously understands that supporters should be screened for conflicts of interest, in order to avoid public perception of engaging in quid pro quo in politics.

The Supreme Court on Quid Pro Quo and Political Corruption

As politicians court big-money supporters for their campaigns to such offices as senator, state representative, and President, whispers of corruption in the form of quid pro quo deals make their way through their constituents. The issue of participation in our nation’s democracy through political contributions has long been debated, both in the private sector, and in government.

In 1974, Congress amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, in a comprehensive effort to limit campaign contributions, as well as campaign spending. In 1975, a civil lawsuit was filed by Senator James Buckley and others, against the federal government, on the grounds that the Act violated Americans’ First and Fifth Amendment rights to due process and freedom of expression.

In its decision on Buckley, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the Act’s restriction on “large campaign contributions” is justified, in that it prevents “corruption and the appearance of corruption” born of the public perception of the coercive power of quid pro quo. The Court went on to say that, “to the extent that large contributions are given to secure a political quid pro quo from current and potential office holders, the integrity of our system of representative democracy is undermined.”

This definition of corruption in politics played a role in another Supreme Court decision in the case of McCutcheon et al. v. Federal Election, in which the Court overturned the limitations on the total amount an individual may contribute to political campaigns in any given year. It did not, however, affect the limits on how much any individual can donate to any one politician’s campaign, which amount varies by election cycle. The Federal Elections Committee provides current information on donations limits on their website.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Burden of Proof – A duty placed upon a civil or criminal defendant to prove or disprove a disputed fact.
  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Constituent – A voting member of a community, having the power to elect government representatives.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.