This one belongs in the “I’ve seen it all” category, but takes things to, well, a new low.
Can you be fired for being too attractive? Yes, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in late December 2012. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld the termination of a dental assistant for being an “irresistible attraction”. The Court ruled that an employee who has not done anything wrong—no flirtatious conduct, no harassment of any kind—can be terminated without illegal discrimination.
“The question we must answer is….whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction,” Justice Edward Mansfield wrote regarding the 7-0 unanimous decision. The answer they reached was "Yes".
Dr. James Knight, a 53-year-old dentist, fired his 32-year-old dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, for being too attractive. Ms. Nelson worked for Dr. Knight for 10 years, and Dr. Knight acknowledged that she was the best dental assistant he’d ever had, and had been a stellar employee for the last decade.
Knight fired Nelson and gave her a less-than generous one month's severance. He later told Nelson's husband that he worried he was getting too personally attached and feared he would eventually try to start an affair with her.
In recent months, the dentist began to send Ms. Nelson inappropriate text messages, such as comments on the tightness of her clothing, etc. After Dr. Knight’s wife saw one of the text messages, she ordered her husband to fire Nelson, and he did.
The court concurred with his Dr. Knight’s defense that a boss “has the right to honor the wishes of a family member” without committing discrimination.
Unfair? Yes. But, anti-discrimination laws are not fairness laws. "Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender", said Justice Mansfield.
Knight's attorney, Stuart Cochrane, said the court got it right. "While there was really no fault on the part of Mrs. Nelson, it was just as clear the decision to terminate her was not related to the fact that she was a woman," he said. "The motives behind Dr. Knight terminating Mrs. Nelson were quite clear: He did so to preserve his marriage."
Mr. Knight may have won the lawsuit , but the court of public opinion (as reflected by the scathing press over this decision) has a very different verdict. The general consensus is concern that if we start to give legal sanction for urges that adults should be able to control, it is a very slippery slope indeed to civil rights violations.