Favorite Firings Series: Too Attractive To Work Here

A recent decision by the Iowa Supreme Court has employment lawyers shaking their heads.  In Iowa, it is now perfectly lawful to fire an employee for being too attractive.  In Nelson v. Knight, the Iowa Supreme Court held that a dentist did not improperly discriminate against his dental assistant because of her sex when he fired her because his wife was concerned about his relationship with the dental assistant.

MP900185168The Facts:  Melissa Nelson had worked as a dental assistant for dentist James Knight for more than ten years. She was a good employee, and she said he was generally a respectful employer. But sometimes Dr. Knight told Ms. Nelson her clothing was revealing and “distracting,” and he had commented on it to her. They texted each other on personal matters. Dr. Knight’s wife found out about the texts, and demanded he fire Ms. Nelson. They consulted their pastor, who also thought it would be a good idea if Ms. Nelson were fired. So Dr. Knight fired her, and replaced her with another female dental assistant. Dr. Knight said Ms. Nelson had not done anything inappropriate, but he was worried about engaging in an affair with her in the future.

The Iowa Supreme Court found that Dr. Knight had not fired Ms. Nelson because she is female, but because he perceived there was a threat to his marriage, and the Court cited several cases from the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  As the Iowa court framed the question, it was “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.” The Court answered that termination of employment in this situation was not illegal.

The Moral: It is important to note that, as the Iowa Supreme Court said,

“Title VII and the Iowa Civil Rights Act are not general fairness laws, and an employer does not violate them by treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employee’s protected status.”

We may disagree with what Dr. Knight did in this case. We may think it was unfair to Ms. Nelson. But that does not make it illegal. But, as one commentator said, “Just because an employer can do something does not mean it should.”

The Court did leave open the possibility that if Dr. Knight had fired many women for the same reason, the result might have been different.

“If an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues, it might well be possible to infer that gender and not the relationship was a motivating factor.”

But where the employer only fired one woman because of the potential of a personal relationship, and hired another woman to replace her, the Court found there was no discrimination.

One fact that was not discussed in this case that I think is relevant is the size of Dr. Knight’s dental office.  Most dental offices I’ve been in are quite small – two or three dentists, and a handful of assistants and office staff. They are the epitome of a Main Street small business. Should Dr. Knight have more ability to dictate who works for him than a supervisor in a multi-national company has?

Keep in mind that this case was decided under Iowa law. The result might be different in a federal court or in another state.

What do you think? Was this decision correct or wrongheaded? What would you have done, if you were Dr. Knight? Or his wife?

* * *

Please send me ideas for stories on workplace terminations for this series. If you have an interesting situation, please email me or leave a comment below. But please disguise the facts to protect the innocent (and not-so-innocent) unless the situation is well-publicized, and then include a link to support your story.  I will only publish verified stories.



Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Law, Management, Workplace

6 responses to “Favorite Firings Series: Too Attractive To Work Here

  1. I’ve been scratching my head about this one since first reading about it several weeks ago. A couple of questions I’ve had are: 1) would the decision have been different if the suit had been sexual harassment as opposed to gender discrimination? and 2) if the employer/employee have entered into an at-will working relationship, would the dentist have been better off simply saying: “you’re fired” and not continuing the sentence to include: “because my wife, my minster and I believe you’re a threat to my marriage”?

    • Brian,
      I suspect that this case might well have turned out differently if Ms. Nelson had claimed that she had been harassed by Dr. Knight’s comments or texts. But she said she had been treated well until her termination. Based on my experience, employers are generally not well served by not giving any reason for terminating an employee — typically that permits an inference the termination was for a wrongful reason. But we’ll never know the answers to these questions.
      It is a troublesome case.
      Thanks for the comment.

  2. This is a sticky one! I believe Iowa is an at-will state so I would say Dr had the right to end employment, since it was not due to an protected class reason. But the “human” side of me think WTH that is totally unfair to Ms. Nelson. I think the wife should have addressed her insecurity issues directly with her husband as those are personal matters separate from work. I wonder what would happen if the wife of the President/CEO of a major corporation had the same request to fire their Exec Asst,, with the exact same circumstance what the decision would have been? What do you think federal court will/would decide?

    • Bonnie,
      I have the same questions you do. I think the result might have been different in a large corporation. And I don’t know what a federal court would have done. The Iowa opinion cites 8th Circuit cases.
      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Sara – I have a tough time with this case because our laws/legal precedence and human rights laws are different north of the border. I do think the focus on gender vs. harassment might have been the problem; I feel confident in saying that in Canada this would have been a wrongful dimissal suit as there was not “just cause.” Barring that, it would have been a human rights complaint for sure. Funny thing – why didn’t the employer address the issue of the dress code/alleged “distracting” appearance…? The whole thing just smells….

  4. Pingback: Favorite Firing: Fired After Being Told She Was “Not That Pretty” | Sara Rickover, Behind the Corporate Veil

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