The Iowa State Supreme Court has upheld the decision of a lower court that a dentist in the state that fired an employee that had worked for his practice for over ten years for being “irresistible” operated within the framework of state and federal law. It was affirmed by all seven justices, who happen to all be male, incidentally.
Here’s the story… Dr. James Knight had worked with Melissa Nelson for years. Their relationship had been strictly work and had never resulted in sexual activity or either party actively pursuing such a relationship. But Knight felt that over the last few years, Nelson’s dress and actions in the workplace were too distracting. He suggested to Nelson that her clothes were too tight and revealing and that he found it unable to not pay attention to it. Eventually, Knight fired her over the issue, as recommended by his wife.
On the surface, that seems an interesting story enough. The court ruled that this was a lawful termination because she was not fired because of her gender but because her dress and actions were deemed inappropriate by her employer and was not corrected once brought to light. A little controversial, but we smelled a big rat in this one. As the official story goes, they never had anything but a platonic work relationship. And then, suddenly, a whole lot more details came out.
Knight once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing had crossed the line. A perfectly normal, platonic statement to make to your female co-worker, right? Additionally, there was a text message exchange where Knight asked Nelson how often she experienced an orgasm. Always a topic at the company picnic. It was this line of text messages that eventually inspired Knight’s wife to call for Nelson’s head. So, you see, it’s all about the spin, but the court apparently bought into the “official” story. It sounds a little more sordid when you get the facts, but still, doesn’t it seem like most of the inappropriate behavior was on Knight’s side?
So, how do you feel about this issue? Is it okay to fire someone over sexual attractiveness? And is that somehow not gender bias? Would you fire someone working for you if you felt you just couldn’t keep your paws off of them? What is the correct course of action in a situation like this and did the court rule appropriately? And how do we draw the line between what is too distracting and not too distracting?