It is against federal law for anyone to sexually harass employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission explains that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment.
Federal courts recognize two different types of sexual harassment. The National Law Review notes that both should result in action on the part of the employee: to report it to the employer, to file a complaint with the EEOC, and if these do not resolve the problem, to file a lawsuit against the employer.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment
The basis of quid pro quo is that something is given in exchange for something else. When it refers to sexual harassment, a person in a supervisory position is offering a promotion, raise or some other tangible employment action to an employee in exchange for a sexual favor. The offer could also include negative consequences, such as termination or demotion.
Hostile work environment
When the work environment is so charged with severe or persistent sexual harassment that it constitutes an abusive situation, federal courts refer to the harassment as a hostile work environment. The behaviors may not lead to a tangible employment action, but they are still illegal.
In Jones v Needham, the Supreme Court noted that the two types of sexual harassment may not be distinct in every case. Suggestions that an employee should engage in sexual behaviors with a superior can create a hostile work environment while leading to a point where a tangible employment action occurs. Because both labels refer to behaviors prohibited by federal law, the distinction between them is not as important as the fact that sex discrimination occurred.