What is a Quid Pro Quo?

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Definition:

Quid pro quo — a Latin phrase meaning “something for something” or “this for that” — refers to an agreement between two parties where one party agrees to provide the other with a good or service in exchange or something of value.

🤔 Understanding quid pro quo

When two parties engage in quid pro quo, they’re essentially making a trade. Often the parties are exchanging a favor for something of financial value. One person agrees to hand over something of value, as long as they get something they value in return. Quid pro quo might be used in business or politics. In some cases, a quid pro quo agreement might be void if a court finds the deal to be one-sided or the result of coercion. The term dates back centuries, but it’s one that is still used today.

Example

The most famous modern-day instance of quid pro quo is the impeachment of President Donald Trump, where the President was accused of attempting to engage in quid pro quo with the President of Ukraine. Specifically, the President was accused of threatening to withhold foreign aid from Ukraine unless the government agreed to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Supporters of impeachment and conviction argued that the exchange was unethical. Opponents argued that such quid pro quos are prevalent in politics and that the President did nothing illegal. The case led to the impeachment and ultimate acquittal of the President.

Takeaway

Quid pro quo is like trading chores with your sibling…

As a child, your parents would likely assign you and your siblings chores to do. Suppose your parents instructed you to clean the kitchen after dinner and your sister to do the laundry. But you had plans after dinner on Saturday that you didn’t want to miss, so you agreed to take your sister’s chores if she took yours. You’re each exchanging something roughly of equal value, and you each feel like you’re getting something out of the deal.

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What does quid pro quo mean?

Quid pro quo is a Latin term used to describe an exchange of something of value. The literal translation means “something for something.” There are several phrases in the English language used in place of quid pro quo such as “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,” or “tit for tat.”

The legal definition of quid pro quo primarily has the same meaning as the Latin origins. The Law Dictionary defines quid pro quo as referring to exchanging one thing of value for another. It says of quid pro quo, “It is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.”

Quid pro quo in the legal context is most often used in the case of contract law under the phrase mutual consideration. In contract law, consideration refers to something of value that one person has promised another. When there is mutual consideration, both parties have pledged to give something of value.

Suppose you’re planning a wedding and are hiring a photographer. A professional photographer will almost certainly require a legally binding contract to close the deal. This contract represents mutual consideration (aka quid pro quo). You promise something of value to the photographer (money) in exchange for something else of value (the photography services).

The term quid pro quo is also used in the law in sexual harassment claims. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when an employer or supervisor gives or withholds job benefits based on whether an employee submits to their sexual advances.

What is the origin of quid pro quo?

The origin of quid pro quo dates back to the sixteenth century when it was used in the context of medicine — when one drug was substituted for another (“something for something”), either legitimately or by fraud. Its use during that time was very different than it is today.

After the sixteenth century, people began to find other uses for the term quid pro quo. Lawyers began using the term during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Since its origin, the phrase has often brought with it a negative connotation and the implication that the trade did not actually include two goods or services of equal value — or that the trade may be improper or illegal.

What is quid pro quo harassment?

The phrase quid pro quo is also used in reference to sexual harassment. The federal courts acknowledge two different types of sexual harassment: hostile work environment sexual harassment and quid pro quo sexual harassment.

A type of hostile work environment occurs when sexual harassment takes place. For this type of harassment to exist, the response to the harassment is not related to any job advancement for the employee. The harassment, in this case, results in an abusive work environment.

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when an employer or supervisor makes sexual advances toward an employee and makes job advancement contingent on the employee’s response. For a case of sexual harassment to be quid pro quo harassment, the harasser must be in a position of power and have the authority to grant or withhold job benefits to the employee.

Suppose that your employer has been asking you on dates. You’ve politely declined and have asked him to stop, but he has persisted. One day, your employer tells you that if you give in and go on that date with him, he’ll give you that raise you’ve been asking about. This situation would be a case of quid pro quo harassment.

It could also be the case that an employer is guilty of quid pro quo harassment against a prospective employee during a job interview. Suppose you’re interviewing for a new job, and the hiring manager is hitting on you. The manager suggests that he would ensure you got the job in return for sexual favors from you — This would be an example of quid pro quo harassment.

For a quid pro quo harassment case, unlike with a hostile work environment harassment case, the victim doesn’t have to prove the conduct was severe enough to create an abusive work environment.

Instead, they only need to show that job advancement was made contingent on submitting to the employer’s demands. This adverse action as a result of an employee refusing to submit is referred to as tangible employment action.

Once a victim has shown that quid pro quo harassment occurred, the burden of proof falls on the employer to prove that was not the case. For this to happen, they would have to show that their actions (such as firing an employee or denying someone a raise) occurred for legitimate reasons.

The Supreme Court has found that employers are liable for the actions of their employees in cases of sexual harassment. So if a supervisor were to use quid pro quo sexual harassment against an employee, the employer (that is, the company) could also be held liable in addition to the harasser.

How does quid pro quo apply to politics?

In addition to its uses in contract law and sexual harassment cases, the term quid pro quo also has a place in politics. First, the term quid pro quo is used in the context of campaign finance.

Under federal law, the concept of quid pro quo donations with the expectation of political favor in return is illegal.

For an illegal quid pro quo to have occurred, there has to have been an agreement. So if the donor gave money in the hopes that the politician would do them a favor, no federal law was broken. The politician has to have agreed to the deal. If that’s the case, then bribery has occurred.

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