Firing Someone Deemed Too Attractive Might Be OK

By Bill Leonard Jan 9, 2013
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Can some employees be too attractive for work?

Apparently, the Iowa Supreme Court thinks so.

On Dec. 21, 2012, the court ruled that James Knight, a dentist in Fort Dodge, Iowa, had the legal right to discharge Melissa Nelson, a female employee, because Knight found her attractive and the dentist’s wife saw Nelson as a threat to their marriage.

In a unanimous vote, the court’s panel of seven male judges found that bosses can legally fire employees whom they find irresistibly attractive, even if the workers haven’t done anything wrong. While such a termination of employment might appear unfair, it is not “unlawful discrimination” because the dentist’s action was motivated by his feelings and emotions and not a bias toward gender, the court ruled.

“The issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly,” the court decision stated. “We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife. For the reasons previously discussed, we believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination.”

Nelson, who was fired in January 2010, began working for Knight in 1999, and he stated often that she was the best dental assistant in his office. Beginning in 2009, however, the dentist began telling Nelson that her tight clothing was distracting. In one instance, Nelson, age 32, complained that she had sex infrequently, and Knight responded that “was like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

In addition, Nelson and Knight began texting each other on a variety to subjects, and some of the texts appeared to be flirtatious. When Knight’s wife, who also worked in the dentist’s office, discovered the text messages, she demanded that Knight fire the dental assistant. Nelson later stated that she never considered having an affair with her 53-year-old boss and thought of him as a “father figure.”

After she was fired, Nelson filed a lawsuit claiming sex discrimination. Her attorney argued that Nelson would not have been fired if she was male. Her discrimination complaint did not include allegations of sexual harassment, because Nelson felt that Knight's conduct had not risen to that level, and his comments and texts had not offended her, according to the plaintiff’s attorney.

In his defense, Knight argued Nelson was fired not because of her gender, but because her continued employment posed a threat to his marriage. An Iowa district judge agreed with Knight’s argument and dismissed the case before going to trial. Nelson appealed the lower court ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Justice Edward Mansfield, who wrote the Supreme Court’s decision, noted that Knight had an all-female workforce at his office and that a woman had been hired to replace Nelson. Mansfield wrote that the court’s decision was in line with state and federal court rulings that found employees can be terminated for relationships that create jealousy and tensions within a business owner’s family. In Tenge v. Phillips Modern Ag Co. (446 F.3d 903, 905–06, 8th Cir. 2006), the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a business owner’s discharge of a female employee who was seen by his wife as a threat to their marriage.

While several studies have shown that attractive people tend to earn more and receive more job offers, the Iowa and 8th Circuit Court cases illustrate another side to “lookism.” The term was coined to refer to the preferential treatment attractive people often receive, but perhaps, being too good looking has a downside, too.

Another recent case of being too attractive at work received national media attention.

In May 2012, Lauren Odes, an ex-employee of a New York lingerie company, filed a complaint with the New York office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that the company owners fired her for being too attractive and for wearing provocative clothing. Odes received widespread media coverage when she filed the claim against her former employer, Native Intimates. As of this writing, EEOC investigators are still reviewing the case.

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.

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