This type of action refers to an employer treating an employee differently because an employee is in a protected class. Intentional discrimination is illegal, but employers could also violate Title VII by implementing seemingly neutral, harmless policies that have the unintended effect of discriminating against certain protected classes.  In legal speak, it is said that such policies are illegal because they have a “disparate impact” on certain groups. An example of this type of discrimination is the automatic exclusion of applicants convicted of a crime. The EEOC takes the position that such a policy is unlawful and discriminatory because statistics show that certain races are more likely to be convicted of crimes than others.  Accordingly, this seemingly neutral policy could have the unintended consequence of discriminating against certain racial groups.

Harassment (hostile work environment and quid pro quo)

Under Title VII, harassment is a form of illegal discrimination when the harassment is because of the victim’s inclusion in one of the protected categories.  There are two types of harassment: “hostile work environment” and “quid pro quo.”  The former can apply to harassment based on any protected category, while the latter applies only in the context of sexual harassment.

Hostile work environment: Title VII prohibits actions of employees and supervisors against other employees based upon their membership in a protected class to the extent that such actions create an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive” working environment.  To be a violation of Title VII, the actions must be so severe and pervasive that a reasonable person would consider these actions to substantially interfere with a person’s ability to work.  Generally, the more severe the conduct, the more likely it rises to actionable harassment.  Conversely, the less severe the conduct, the less likely it rises to actionable conduct.  Also, when many hear harassment, they automatically think of sexual harassment; harassment based on any of Title VII’s protected categories can be unlawful.

The employer is not always automatically liable for the harassment of its employees.  That depends on such variables as the respective positions of the individuals involved, the company’s policies on harassment, whether the harassment was reported, and, if so, how the company responded to the report.  To read more on this issue, please see “Is the company liable for violations of Title VII by its employees?”.

Quid pro quo is a form of sexual harassment. Translated literally, quid pro quo means “this for that.”  These claims are often made when a subordinate rejects a superior’s advances and then perceives that they are treated less favorably than if the advances were rejected.  In other words, sex is treated as a bargaining chip.


Title VII prohibits an employer from taking any adverse employment action against any employee in retaliation for that employee complaining of unlawful discrimination or harassment or participating in any investigation related to such a complaint. Examples of the type of behavior that is protected are an employee making a complaint that either they or another employee has suffered from harassment or discrimination; giving a statement regarding alleged discrimination or harassment; speaking to investigators with the EEOC or other administrative agency regarding the discrimination or harassment; and discussing a complaint about harassment or discrimination alleged to have occurred in the workplace with employees or other employers.

Next Tool Kit Article: Title VII – When Is An Employer Liable? >>

<< Title VII – What Does It Prohibit?

Return to Employment Law Tool Kit

The information herein is not legal advice. The information is in the form of legal education and is intended to provide general information about the matter discussed.  The above is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice and does not create an attorney/client relationship.