There has been much publicity about a case in Iowa brought by Melissa Nelson against her former employer James Knight. Nelson worked as a dental assistant for 10 years for Knight. Knight admits Nelson was the best dental assistant he employed. But Knight fired Nelson because he found her irresistibly attractive and a threat to his marriage (a position Mrs. Knight took as well).
Because of all the hoopla over the case, I looked it up and read it. The facts are interesting as is the court's opinion -- which I believe is probably the correct opinion based on the law.
Occasionally during work Knight asked Nelson to avoid wearing clothing that was either too tight, revealing or distracting. While Nelson disagreed with Knight's assessment, she would put on a lab coat.
During the last six months of employment Knight and Nelson texted back and forth. Most texts were mundane and innocuous. However, the subject matter of a few of them was inappropriate for an employer-employee relationship. For example, Knight made reference to the bulge in his pants when Nelson wore revealing clothes. Nelson made a comment about the infrequency of sexual relations with her husband. And Knight asked Nelson how often she experienced an orgasm. Stupid emails. But neither party was offended by the emails.
Mrs. Knight, who also worked at the office, discovered the text messages and demanded that her husband fire Nelson. He did, and then replaced Nelson with another female.
Nelson claimed that the firing violated Title VII, which protects against discrimination based on "sex". Nelson claimed that but for her sex she would still be employed.
The court articulated the legal question as follows: 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 answer is yes.
According to the court, Title VII (and probably most state laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex) is not a general fairness law. Rather, it prohibits discrimination based on an employee's protected status.
The court concluded that Knight's decision was not based on Nelson's sex or gender. Rather, the decision was based on his feelings and emotions regarding a specific person. Those romantic feelings should not be a proxy for gender.
The court recognized the validity of some of the points raised by Nelson. For example, she argued that Knight should be held accountable because he fired Nelson to avoid committing sexual harassment. Moreover, had Mrs. Knight been threatened by multiple female workers, and demanded all be fired, that might constitute a gender-based decision. But in this case Knight did not make his decision based on Nelson's gender. He made the decision based on his romantic attraction to her in particular, and due to the effect that attraction could have on his marriage. Thus, the court concluded that Title VII was not violated.
So what does this mean? I have a few ideas:
1. Bosses should keep an arms-length relationship with respect to their employees. Don't be texting either innocuous material or sexually-related material to staff members.
2. If dress issues are a concern, consider a uniform of some sort that will avoid issues raised by persons with different tastes or standards in clothing.
3. Avoid the claim. Although Dr. Knight won the case, it came at a substantial cost. He had to pay his lawyer to defend him, including an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
4. Make sure you comply with the law and do not make a decision based on a person's inclusion in a protected class.
5. Finally, don't think your good looks will keep you employed.