Human Resources News & Insights

Was woman discriminated against for being ‘irresistible’?

A new sex discrimination ruling raises some interesting questions about appearance in the workplace.

Here are the details of the case:

Melissa Nelson worked as a dental assistant for James Knight in Iowa. By all accounts, Nelson was a good worker and Knight treated her with respect.

After nine years of employment, however, Knight began to complain to Nelson about her appearance, including;

  • telling Nelson to put on a lab coat because her clothing was too tight and “distracting”
  • saying that if Nelson saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing
  • texting Nelson asking her how often she experienced an orgasm, and
  • after Nelson made a comment about infrequency in her sex life, saying that “That’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

Knight’s wife eventually discovered a trove of text messages between Knight and Nelson, and Knight’s wife, along with the couple’s senior pastor of their church, said that Knight should fire Nelson because Nelson was a threat to the Knight’s marriage.

Knight called Nelson into his office soon after and told her that he was firing her. He noted that their relationship had become detrimental to his family and have Nelson one month’s severance pay.

Of note: Knight replaced Nelson with another woman, and all of Knight’s dental assistants had been women.

A ‘but for’ argument

Nelson sued, claiming sex discrimination.

Nelson argued that she was terminated because of her gender, and wouldn’t have been fired had she been male.

Knight responded by saying that he only hires women, so Nelson couldn’t have been fired because her sex. Instead, he reiterated that she was fired because their relationship posed a threat to Knight and his family.

The court noted previous court rulings in saying that employers don’t engage in gender bias if they fire a female worker who’s involved in a consensual relationship that’s triggered personal jealousy. It also noted that sexual favoritism — where one employee was treated more favorable than members of the opposite sex because of a consensual relationship with the boss — doesn’t violate discrimination law either.

The question, as the court put it: Can an employee “who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct … be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction”?

Precedent wins the day

The answer, according to the court: Yes.

If Nelson could show that she had been terminated because she didn’t conform to a particular stereotype, then she may have one. Similarly questions would have been raised if Knight had fired a number of women for fear of being attracted to them.

But, the court concluded, the issue was not to decide to Knight treated Nelson badly. Instead, the court had to decide if Knight engaged in unlawful gender bias by firing Nelson at the request of his wife. Based on the facts of the case and precedent, the answer was no.

Michael P. Maslanka on Work Matters made a salient point about the ruling:

The Iowa court explained that courts have found no gender discrimination where a plaintiff was terminated because her boss wanted to conceal a previous affair from his wife, where the plaintiff’s supervisor fired her because he was jealous of her relationship with another employee, and where a supervisor terminated a plaintiff after they broke up. If none of these scenarios was gender discrimination, than neither was this case.

The case is Nelson v. Knight and Knight.

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