Too sexy for my office? Iowa woman fired for being ‘too attractive’

Dec 24, 2012

Vladimir Gusinsky's Political Television Program NTV

Can you be too attractive for the office? Iowa rules that employers can fire employees who they see as an “irresistible attraction.” Credit: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

An Iowa Supreme Court composed of only male judges ruled unanimously that a dentist who fired his employee because he and his wife viewed her as a threat to their marriage was acting within the law. The court determined that employers could fire someone they consider to be an “irresistible attraction,” regardless of the nature of their relationship with the employee.

Dentist James Knight fired Melissa Nelson after his wife became wary about platonic text messages between the two. In his defense, Knight’s lawyers claimed that the termination was not an act of gender discrimination – Knight fired Nelson because he was attracted to her, not because she was a woman.

Although the court ruled in his favor, many critics have jumped to Nelson’s defense, saying that the all-male court failed to recognize the gender discrimination women face in the workplace. They argue that the judges have sent the message that men can’t be held responsible for controlling their desires, and that responsibility for monitoring attraction falls on female employees.

Although hiring and firing power lies with employers, especially in small business without a formal HR presence, the lines between preference and discrimination are frequently blurry. 

Could Knight’s decision to fire Nelson for being too attractive be considered sexual harassment? Should employers be able to fire anyone they deem “irresistible,” even if the person being fired has shown absolutely no interest in pursuing a relationship? Even if the decision to terminate employment based on attraction is legal, is it morally out of bounds? Have you ever been fired for no reason, or a bad one?


Nancy Bornn, employment law attorney with a practice in Marina Del Rey

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