A primary purpose of sexual harassment training is helping managers recognize and address inappropriate workplace behavior. A lot of time gets spent on what constitutes a sexually hostile work environment. Considerably less time gets spent on quid pro quo harassment. More importantly, the training frequently gets it wrong.

"Quid pro quo" means "this for that" in Latin. So most trainers will explain that it’s inappropriate for managers to condition job benefits on the employee providing sexual favors or making the rejection of a sexual advance the basis for an adverse employment decision. But in the real world, "quid pro quo" harassment doesn’t usually result from a manager’s calculated decision about how to bargain his or her authority for sexual favors. In the real world, it’s often the result of a man misperceiving whether a female subordinate is sexually interested.

Some psychologists think there’s an evolutionary basis for this. Carin Perilloux, a psychologist at Williams College, hypothesizes that overconfident men were more likely to "go for it" (my words, not hers) and therefore had more opportunities to pass on their genes. As a result, as reported in Discovery News, "men are more likely to walk away from an interaction with a woman thinking that she’s into him, while the woman thinks, ‘Well that was a nice friendly conversation.’"

This situation isn’t hard to imagine. A male supervisor is thinking about his interactions with his younger, female subordinate. He thinks about how pleasant she is towards him, how she appears to pay close attention to what he says and even laughs at the jokes that his wife tells him are stupid. He’s wondering, is it because he’s her boss and she has a powerful economic incentive to stay in his good graces? Or is it because she thinks he’s hot?

This is where men’s innate tendency to overestimate women’s interest comes into play. If he pursues a relationship and she rejects his advances, is he going to treat her the same? Because, even if it’s subconscious, if he becomes more critical of her work, less inclined to give her desirable assignments, or looks for ways to get her out of the organization, then that’s pretty blatant quid pro quo harassment. The motive was not a calculated effort to use his authority to get sexual favors. It was his mistaken belief that she would be receptive to his advances.

Training on quid pro quo harassment needs to help managers understand this dynamic. As a start, perhaps we should teach that "quid pro quo" is Latin for "No. I won’t sleep with you for a raise. You’re gross. Now leave so I can call my lawyer."